I'm four months late posting this interview, and that's on me, but it's a testament to Sam Ross's debut collection, Company, that I've thought of it at least weekly since. His poems are deceptively quiet against our over-saturated moment, bursting with their own possibility. He doesn't give us full narratives, but emotions within moments, and to me they often feel like ghosts showing up when you're not quite prepared. His book tour brought him back to Bloomington, where he studied as an undergraduate at Indiana University. The Back Door hosted his reading directly before a Halloween-themed drag show (in April), and the following afternoon we met at The Owlery to talk Twitter, Mapplethorpe, and desert island what-if's over sweet potato fries.
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Case: I wanted to start with the Ari Banias poem, “Gay Bars.” I read this book a couple months ago and I remember loving it except for reading that poem and being like “I don’t know if it’s a poem,” but I have trouble with list poems in general. Where’s the magic, you know?
Ross: Yeah, I’ve never published a list poem.
But it was really enlightening hearing you read it before your own work because the magic was there, happening in real time. I don’t know if that was due to the space or your reading, but it got me to engage in a new way.
I wasn’t planning on reading that poem. I usually don’t read other people’s work, but coming back into town into this new space that my friends had built made the poem feel right. There was something really sensual about reading those names out loud and having those words in your mouth. I had no preconceptions of how it would feel to read that poem aloud, but it ended up feeling like magic.
I do think there’s a power in naming, in giving names their space.
On the language level, it’s like naming colors or perfumes, or another sensory object. A nail polish. A cocktail. It’s just fun to say them all together, but as you age the poem turns into a checklist. I’ve been there, I’ve been there. It aligns with your lived experience. That place was shitty, that place was great. I was sad there, I was drunk there.
I was sad and drunk there.
Sober and happy, sober and sad. I’m glad it worked.
Do you feel differently about your own poems when you read them aloud?
…It feels like the natural endpoint of it. It’s meant to be spoken, not necessarily by me, but the sound of it is important to me. I love how things look on the page, but I think there’s a lot of subtle sound work at play in the poems that isn’t immediately obvious until it’s read out. …I did a reading at KGB Bar on Monday, and it had been a shitty day for me personally, and then Notre Dame caught on fire…but I’m going to go do a reading. The thing about that fire that was disturbing for me was that I found the collective regarding of it to be very alienating. Sort of like, any type of recycled image of spectacle or disaster, the way people construct ourselves to be a news source. I must post an image of this thing that’s happening, because how will people see it otherwise? And I understand that impulse completely, it’s not a conscious choice people make. It’s how the system is designed to make us act. It’s how Twitter works. But it’s also really disturbing, I think. There are poems in the book that deal with perception in media and violence and looking, and reading those in the immediate aftermath of that felt differently than it would have the previous week.
There are two poems in your book, “Livestream” and “Innamorato,” that I kept thinking about because people who aren’t in a particular location are still/now exposed to things happening almost in real time. How do you mourn? How do you grieve for things when you’re not physically present but still emotionally present?
The writer Jia Tolentino said that our ability to regard suffering is the greatest it’s ever been, but our ability to do something about that suffering hasn’t. We can witness so much more, but we can’t do anything about it. It leads to a feeling of spiritual impotence. People struggle with this but don’t know how to react, which leads to facile retweets and “my heart is breaking” status updates, but a couple hours later you’re still living your life.
There’s something about that speed, too. Because the Internet is so fast, I have to show my sadness. But then, is collective sadness useful?
I find collective emotional experiences pretty alienating, which is one reason I write about intimacy. I understand what you’re saying, but I tend to feel troubled or cold or stony in the wake of a huge, collective emotional experience on the Internet. What if I don’t feel that way? What if I can’t? What do I do with that?
What do you do with that?
I stay quiet…
I’m curious about when you wrote your Orlando poem, and how you decided to bring it into the world.
I wrote it when I was in Provincetown, and some friends of mine from New York came up to visit me. We were beach-walking at sunset together, and it took me back to the morning of the shooting; we’d had plans to go to the beach together, and we stuck to those plans. We were sitting there in shock and grief and fear together. It felt like a return to those people specifically, and the poem came together pretty quickly about those bookends to that experience. Via language, the title is Italian for ‘male lover,’ but I was interested in the word Orlando. My dad is a professor of English and a translator and he translated this Italian epic Orlando Innamorato by the poet Boiardo and so I grew up knowing that that was a big achievement of his. Just the words of it are always in my head. When I hear “Orlando,” that’s the first thing I think of. The second is Virginia Woolf, and the third is citrus.
I did want to talk about your father’s presence in “Storytelling,” because I subbed for a Catherine Bowman workshop one day—she’s doing a seminar on ghosts—and I said I’d just do some ghost poems I like. This was maybe three weeks ago, and I’d been reading your book, and I thought of it. There’s the ghost of him, and that in combination with your book being dedicated to your parents, I was wondering how you feel about lineage.
…Both of my parents have interesting ways with language. When I hang out with them, I’m writing beautiful or weird things they say, but I don’t think of my work as so autobiographical. It really isn’t important to me at all to convey any kind of narrative coherence. I don’t mind being specific about who says what in a poem, or where a thing comes from, but I’m not interested in fleshing out the details of my childhood over the course of a book. It’s just not what I’m interested in my work doing.
People have done that. You know, I’ve read that book… This poem spoke to me in particular because there are all these questions about your family that you want answers for, but there’s no way to ask. There’s no way to say “tell me about this” without opening wounds you weren’t necessarily alive for. I’ve got a few things like that in my family.
Like, I’d really like to know this, but how do you talk to your parents about it?
And there’s a chance there’s nothing to be gained from it, either. The answers that you’re looking for aren’t more illuminating than having the question. Do you really think things will be transformed by getting an answer?
That’s good. I’ve obviously been into ghosts lately, and I keep coming back to your poem “Shiver, Shelter.” What does “my ghost” mean?
I’d written several poems where my ghost appeared, and I was talking to someone else about things I saw my work doing, things you figure out later, and I’m really interested in collapsing time in poems, and creating little time-warps…. A logical conclusion to me was thinking about inhabiting the same space that your ghost is inhabiting. What could they tell you? What could they help you understand? It’s an intensely lyrical poem. I don’t have an easy answer to what it’s doing, but I trusted that it was what I meant to say. That ghost figure had appeared in several earlier poems from my time at Columbia, but that was the only one that I couldn’t let go. That poem is a means to an end of its final question [“How do you stay decent and still refuse everyone all of the time?”], which I’m genuinely interested in.
I'm thinking about ghosts as pieces of compressed time or alternate realities. They’re different ways of existing.
A couple years ago I was emailing with the poet Jacques J. Rancourt, who was working on poems for his chapbook Love in the Time of PREP, and we were talking about queer ghosts and generational loss to AIDS and spaces we inhabit that were once filled with people much like us who are now inexplicitly absent from these spaces as through a rapture or erasure. As artists, I think about how much work we lost from people who weren’t already in the public eye or having their work regarded or institutionalized. We were talking about that idea of inhabiting spaces with their ghosts and the mutability time has when you start investigating those avenues.
There are three or four explicitly ekphrastic pieces in your book, and I want to discuss “Time Expanding the Air Forcibly.” Thinking about the idea of a photograph as a concrete, air-quotes “real” image, what does it do when the camera stops functioning? What do Polaroids do naturally?
Even when it’s functioning, the frame only captures what’s inside the frame. It doesn’t preserve anything else, and it doesn’t reveal the person who’s taking the picture, who’s likely in the space at the moment.
I had at one point a book of Mapplethorpe’s polaroids. I don’t know where it went, but they’re so much more interesting to me than his medium-format work. There are so many I wouldn’t expect, like the coffee cup on the plaid placement, or just the phone, opposite a dick poking out of a leather thong.
That’s my poetics right there. After the coffee ring on the table…
…Your book gets sexier as it goes. Was that intentional?
It was, or if it wasn’t an explicit decision as far as ordering went, which was an organic process, I do think those poems arrived later…
Back to Mapplethorpe: How do you approach ekphrastic writing? Does it come naturally? Do you pick a photo you love?
I tend to fail at ekphrastic writing more often than not. I’m surprised there are as many as there are in the book, because I can remember very often being obsessed with some image or painting and thinking “I’m gonna write about this, I’m gonna blow this up,” and then writing something and thinking “This is real shit.” It turns out making art about art is really hard. I don’t have a concrete practice for ekphrastic work, but I think of the pieces that ended up in the book, it seems like the approach ended up being to insert the work into a narrative that was already happening, like a course the speaker was already on, to have another artwork glance off of that course or experience so the two would resonate with each other.
What kind of ekphrastic work resonates with you?
I like work that reminds me of this night in Provincetown: I was walking late at night to meet some friends. The town was dead, totally empty and dark and wet, and there was this perfect white fox in the middle of the road. I looked at him for maybe five minutes before going to get really close to him, and we had a moment of really acknowledging each other and noticing each other. Then when I got to the bar and told my friend what happened, he asked what the fox was trying to tell me, and I didn’t know. I didn’t know! I should have gone back to ask him.
Did you ever figure it out?
Will you tell me more about Black’s Beach and its physical space? What was the ocean like, what was it doing to get you that far off from where you thought you were?
It had a strong current. The ocean can seduce you, especially when you’re floating on your back in a kind of reverie. You find yourself completely lost. The true “what the fuck” of it is how could we really lose our clothes? There’s only so much space, and it’s all open. But the unthinkable and the maddening happens all the time. The answer to “why” is immediately less important than “what do you do now.” That’s why the poem isn’t invested in explaining how it happened. Many poems in the book do a similar thing, where I’m giving you a situation but I’m not filling in the details as to the run up, the exposition.
I don’t think the poem needed that, but I always am thinking about physical spaces, and what, say, architecture allows a person to do or see or experience.
I’ve been reading Angie Estes’s new book, and she explores that, an overlay between architectural spaces and spaces of the mind, and how the two mirror and distort one another. Richie Hofmann does that too, beautifully.
Have you met Richie?
Yeah, he’s a sweetie.
I only met him once, and I was shocked to meet him because I thought he’d be a lot quieter based on the tone of his poems and the caution they instill in me.
But he’s really funny, right?
He’s so funny, so beautifully present...
Meeting people can illuminate things about the work that you don’t always want to put on the page, especially at readings, because you’re making the reader feel comfortable, part of it. It’s another type of performance.
…Keith Leonard or Edgar Kunz, trapped on a desert island?
Oh, wow. …Keith. He wakes up singing, with a song in his heart. He’s a light in the dark and—I love Edgar—but I’d probably use Keith more.
That’s fair. He could grow you things! …I keep thinking about the poets I know between 24 and 40 years old and being like, I just want baseball cards of everybody. Little avatars of them following me around, like one of Derrick Austin going “look at this painting.”
Do you know him?
Only from Twitter, but his book is one of my favorites from the last few years.
It’s nice when you meeting someone IRL and they’re a person you want to spend time with. I also have a taste for the opposite. I don’t need to know you, I don’t need to meet to value your work anyway.
I think that way a lot about poets who have already passed, and reading work that’s a hundred years old.
Or fifty years old. Or thirty. There’s something about the contemporary moment now, where everyone is reading each other, and while there’s a beautiful moment of contemporary talent, there is also a trope of poets communicating with the dead, of being invested in their work outlasting them. You’re trying to touch the face of God, trying to access immortality… I love that.