Eating Drums with Sam Ace (Sam will be reading on Sunday, May 6 at 7:00 PM at the Jewish History Museum.)
Renee Angle: Hi Sam! I’m happy to be talking with you about your poetry today, and in particular, your sound work. Your sound work features, in addition to your voice, other effects, noises, sounds, and melodies and I love it if you would talk about how you conceive of instrumentation or layering.
Sam Ace: The first word that comes to me is that it’s intuitive. I actually became very interested in sound a long time ago, in my early twenties,. I was working on an MFA in painting and spent the whole first year of that program making films. I became fascinated with the soundtracks of film, and other more multi-media work. At the time, the faculty at my school was not so interested in me pursuing that work, so I ended up leaving and moving to New York City. I had also studied classical piano when I was a kid, and although I chose not to pursue music as a career, I wanted to somehow incorporate what I loved most about sound into my work.
Although I didn’t know him well, I wrote to the electronic music composer, J.K. Randall, who was the son of my sister’s childhood violin teacher. I had some contact with him when I was 14 or 15, when his mother sent him poems of mine. He was very kind to me then, and when he got my letter about my interest in sound, he invited me to come down to Princeton where he was a faculty member in the music department. I did not enroll in any program, but Jim essentially gave me the run of the place. I started composing sound pieces on these huge mainframes, with punch cards. We also did a lot of improvisational work together using keyboards and other instruments. I also started to do some composing and performing for off-off Broadway theater in New York.
Sound itself has always been a major part of my thinking about poetry, but it hasn't been until recent years that I started to incorporate some of that sound, music, and compositional knowledge into my written work. A few years ago, some of my writing began to feel very choral in nature. Part of that came out of my editing process. If I didn't reflexively throw out the lines I was editing, but included them or parts of them, along with the revisions, I watched how meaning and content played out across the poem on the page. The work took on a kind of fugue-like quality. I was interested how a line, repeated with slight changes of language, form, and rhythm, could create deeper multi-dimensional, and less linear, meaning. I also started to lightly script the poems and to perform them with friends. I liked what was happening - how the layers of sound and language started to deepen the meaning and content of what I was saying in the poems. Then I started playing with Garageband on my iPhone, recording my own voice reading poems, sampling layering language, and playing with the instrumentals. So the sound work has just been an ever-evolving process over the last few of years.
The pieces themselves started getting more and more complex and I was constructing and recording these very complete sound poems. But when I went to perform them or to do a reading, it felt wrong to just press a button and let the computer play the pieces. People don’t need to go to a reading to hear that – they can stay home and listen over headphones. One of the things I love about hearing a poet read their work, is how different that work can sound each time they read, depending on so many factors. There is always some aspect of improvisation. As a listener, I want to be engaged, not a passive recipient. As someone who gives readings and attends readings, I try to be aware of the audience, to connect and include them somehow. When performing the sound pieces, I have been incorporating more aspects of live performance into the work. Through a New Works grant from the Arts Foundation for Tucson and Southern Arizona, as well as a faculty grant from Mount Holyoke, where I teach, I was able to purchase equipment that allows me to more easily incorporate some improvisational elements into live performance. I feel as if I’m just scratching the surface of what is possible. I will be performing some of that new work in Tucson.
RA: Would you be willing to talk about the new work you're planning to perform at the Jewish History Museum on May 6th? Concepts, themes or general ideas that you're working with? It sounds like you might be working with some constraints and improvisation or maybe both.
SA: I've been basing the current sound work on poems in a new book called Our Weather Our Sea that will be published next year by Black Radish Books. The book contains some of the choral-like poems I referred to earlier. My goal has been to have an album of sound pieces ready to accompany the publication of the book.
Sometimes the pieces start first in language, then I improvise and work on the language, sound, and instrumentals simultaneously. But sometimes I'll just play with sound alone, then feel like there's an appropriate poem in the book that I want to incorporate within that sound. So it's very organic and it depends on that piece. Most of the pieces I plan to perform in Tucson are in the collection.
I performed some pieces the other night at the home of some friends who hold a monthly reading in their living room (which is my favorite place to give a reading!). I incorporated some audience participation into a few of the poems, and I'm hoping to do the same in Tucson, I’d like to create an intimate space, a kind of living room, in the Memorial Garden at the museum where the audience feels relaxed and involved.
RA: Do you want to talk more about Our Weather Our Sea?
Sure. The book contains poems written over the last five or six years. One of the sections contains many of the choral poems I spoke about earlier. I want to add that those poems also began as letters, or a kind of call and response, back and forth from one speaker to another. As a trans, genderqueer person, I had loosely based those ‘correspondents,’ both of which were me, on my pre-and post-transition self. Gradually the voices started to blur (I am one person after all!), so in revision, I made the decision to take out the salutations, but left parts of the letter form. What remains is a kind of a text block, followed by a response, sometimes by another block of text, sometimes by a form comprised of very short enjambed lines, and sometimes no response at all.
The current iteration of the book is framed by longer form prose poems. As I’m talking to you, I'm also thinking about a new poem and sound piece, currently not in the book, called "These Nights". It was written after the election last year. In the poem, I am looking at the people I love, their daily activities living and loving under a specter of control and surveillance that increasingly pervades everything we do. But also how we somehow find joy as we love, find connection, and move through the world. Our Weather Our Sea contains a great deal of joy, but also a strong undertow of sadness and loss.
RA: One of the things I did in this interview was to I just did a little bit of literary divining in John Cage's Silence. I came across this quote of his that really reminded me of what I see happening in your work—a kind of continuity and rupture. And I was hoping I could read it to you maybe we could talk about it a little bit or you can talk about it. It's really short. He says, "Why if everything is possible do we concern ourselves with history (in other words with a sense of what is necessary to be done at a particular time)." And I wonder if you see history or time at play in this new project or maybe in older projects.
So many thoughts come to my mind about this. I think that Cage is always working against a perceived linearity of time. His inclusion of elements of chaos and chance in his work reckons with the persistence of linear and causal memory. I think he understood how memory and experience so often informs and controls our perception. He’s always asking us to pay attention to the present, to open up our attention to what is happening now, and to consider why one sound or iteration of a piece is better or worse than another, or in fact equally ok. That goes back a little to what I was saying about my editing process and wanting to leave certain things in order to create more multi-dimensional meaning. Cage creates these very light frames for possibility, like in his famous “4 33” where the frame becomes time. By becoming aware and deeply listening to what happens in that frame, we are asked to pay attention to the music of all that occurs within it.
When we hear, there’s always the horizontal quality of something happening in time, but also vertical and spatial elements. As a child, I first learned this by listening orchestras and chamber music - being able to hear different instruments playing at the same time. I could train my ears to follow a particular melody or part played by one of the instruments, then switch to another, or just take in the whole. Every listening would be different, and I could create a new version inside my mind each time I listened to a piece. I guess I have some aspirations to that in poetry. Text on the page is such a latecomer to poetry. I go back to orality and music and poetry off the page. I think about the act of listening to stories around a campfire and at the same time hearing the sounds of an animal in the woods, the rustling leaves, the wind, or even someone whispering gossip in the background. All of that, including the silences, becomes a part of the experience.
During the Gay Pride marches of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, at the height of the AIDS crisis in New York, tens of thousands and thousands of people would be streaming down Fifth Avenue. At some point, the march would come to a stop in front of St. Patrick's Cathedral, one of the most virulent sites of violence and rhetoric against gay people at the time. All movement would cease, and there would be several minutes of silence. Everything paused - the noise of thousands of feet marching and dancing, of talking, of chanting, of music, of everyone making the noise of visibility. All you would hear were the bells, the car horns, the sirens, the cooing of doves. There was no actual silence, but the silence of the marchers was as loud as every other sound on the street.
RA: I was also thinking about your book Stealth which is a collaborative project with the poet, Maureen Seaton. And one of the things that stood out to me about that book is just the "ability to witness without being seen." You'll be reading at the Memorial Garden in the Jewish History Museum and in the context of Jewish history witnessing certainly has a historical import. I am curious to your thoughts about how that may be as a trans and genderqueer poet but also as somebody with a Jewish background. How does witnessing inform your work or play into what you might have already been talking about?
SA: I wrote a poem quite a while ago called “Witness Protection” which was originally published in a journal called Van Gogh’s Ear, and later collected in Troubling the Line. The poem came partly out of my physical transition and the often weird experience, as I passed more and more as masculine, that people could not recognize me on the street. I was often in groups of cis-gender men who had no idea I was assigned female at birth, and I would observe their often horrifying social interactions when there were no women around. In that poem and some others, I've investigated acts of passing and what you call "witnessing without being seen." I think that's a really beautiful way of putting it. It's also a very strange, disorienting place to be, one filled with loss and anger. That being said, in those situations, it has been important to me to be seen. To call out misogyny, homophobia transphobia, and racism when the people around me enact it.
I had great grandparents who were murdered in the Holocaust, as were probably countless other relatives. I know hardly anything about them except their faces from some photos I inherited from my grandparents. My mother's parents immigrated from Transylvania and Hungary right before World War One. I can't remember the exact dates they came but they each were the only members of their families that came to the United States. Subsequently my grandfather had a brother who did manage to get out of Europe in 1938 or ‘39, but had to go to Singapore or Shanghai for several years, because as a refugee, he was barred from the states. My grandmother also had one brother who escaped to Israel.
I recently went to Germany for the first time to help a friend navigate a broken back. I had no previous desire to visit – never wanting to put my feet on that ground. Our friend lived in a tiny town north of Frankfurt on the old border of East and West Germany. My partner and I stayed fairly close to our friend and did little sight-seeing. But we did visit Buchenwald. This was right after the election, and I needed to witness what remained in the wake of a continuous genocidal history, not only in Germany, but in the United States.
My grandparents did not talk to me about what happened to their families. They spoke Hungarian and Yiddish when they did not want me to understand what they were talking about. The blankness I experience in my lack of knowledge about my ancestors is soothed somewhat by the stories and memories I hear recounted at places like the Holocaust History Center.
Being trans and witnessing the patriarchy, racism, and the damage of capitalism in its relentless force is almost unbearable. I experienced severe gender dysphoria when I was very, very young. As a child, masculinity was a myth, fed by stories of the white boyhoods I found in books and on tv. Those boys always seemed to have the freedom to get dirty, to be in the woods, to travel. That being said, I’m so grateful I didn't actually have a boyhood! Almost every cis-gender guy of a certain age has story after story to tell about the cruelty enacted on their psyches and their bodies in the service of masculinity, or how they felt they had to participate in it to survive. They have spoken to me about how devastating and dangerous it often was to let down those masks. Part of witnessing is calling out something when it is wrong. Part of witnessing is supporting people who need to feel safe to show who they are. Part of witnessing is coming out. I try to do this in my actions, my teaching, my writing, and my everyday life.
RA: How does that wind its way into your work? Is sound for you ever an act of witnessing?
The book Stealth was a sometimes playful, sometimes very serious investigation of all aspects of what that word means. That investigation took both Maureen and I from rollercoasters and stealth bombers to deeper concepts of self and identity - all of it kaleidoscopic and without simple definition. That's probably true of my work in general, in that I often think of it more as an accumulation, and that aspects of the whole show up in the parts. I think of the sound work as absolutely an extension of the poetry, as well as an act of witness, in that I strive to create a larger experience off the page of the full and dimensional meanings embedded in the work. In Tucson, I hope to perform a sound version of a poem called "I finally made it through the birds, the birds" (http://losangelesreview.org/finally-made-birds-birds-samuel-ace/), where I write about coming through an incredibly difficult time in my life. I hope that the poem and its sound version witness a the loss and grief of a certain history, but also accumulate into the relief one experiences when finally letting go.
RA: You have a sound poem currently being featured in the Jewish History Museum’s exhibit Invisibility + Resistance: Violence Against LGBTQIA+ People right now. I'm curious about how you chose the piece "I hear you so faintly."
I created “I hear you so faintly” specifically for the exhibit. The language was taken from a much longer poem and was built organically with sound and instrumental elements. I was thinking about the exhibit and the violence perpetrated against LGBTQIA+ individuals, now and in history. Also the exhibit’s location in the Holocaust History Center, surrounded by the portraits and stories of survivors. I was thinking about the amount and very present accumulation of violence, and that moment where someone enduring that violence is calling out and screaming: ‘Listen, please listen. This is happening. This is this is happening right now.’ So when I found the phrase “I hear you so faintly” in a recent poem, I wanted to acknowledge how, when we ourselves are not experiencing immediate violence in our daily lives, especially if we're fortunate to have a job, or a roof over our heads, or to live with some level of privilege, those voices can sometimes become very faint. I wanted to create a piece that acknowledged those voices, to say that if one just listens, those voices are very loud and need to be paid attention to.
RA: You work in several different mediums. Do you approach each the same? How do you decide what ideas will be sound, image, text? Do the three of them have anything in common for you?
I wish I totally knew the answer to that question! At the moment, I'm not doing much visual work, but I just taught a course called “Poetry and the Image: Formations of Identity,” that drew on the sometimes overlapping impulses of poetry and image-making. Certain mediums for me seem to go silent for a while. Perhaps it has something to do with my environment and my surroundings.
I was a painter for a long time, but my visual work got very quiet when I started writing. At the same time, I often think visually, and the visual is very important to my writing. When I moved to Tucson, I bought a used large-format camera and started taking photographs. I came from the Northeast, and had never lived in a place where I could see so far or that much sky. It was like all of my instincts toward the visual suddenly got ignited. It was an engagement for me that was really important, and it felt like it was essential to my process of finding home in a landscape that was so new.
Writing has always been with me, even in early childhood, and has never really stopped, I was just talking to a friend about this. I first moved to Tucson in 1997. I was able to take a year off from working, as I had a little money saved. I was working on a novel, actually a couple of novels, which are still sitting in my desk. I mean 20 years later they're still sitting there! I went into a deep depression, and I think it was due in part to the fact that I didn't know where I was. I didn't feel physically at home. I also getting closer to a decision to medically transition. Finding a physical home in my body was also at a crisis point. Writing has always been a very physical act for me. In order to write fluently, it was important to feel a physical sense of home not only in where I lived, but also in my body.
The sound work I am doing now has come very organically from the writing. I think in many ways it has always been present, harking back to so many years ago when I followed my instincts to Princeton and worked with punch cards to produce music out of those big mainframes. Also, I'm a triple Gemini, and that should tell you something. I'm just comfortable with transformation and multi-dimensionality. For a while I didn’t think that was OK, that I should settle down into one medium. But now I’ve just gotten more comfortable with the movement.
RA: I have one more question for you. And it's really just intended to be a fun, poetic question that you don't even have to answer if you don't want to. But I stole it from a children's book that we have on repeat here at the house right now: If you were going to eat a drum, what utensil would you use to eat a drum?
Wow I wouldn't eat! I would just use my mouth like a whale’s mouth and hope that it would get bigger and bigger and bigger until it was big enough to take in the whole drum. And maybe then the drum would get smaller and smaller to fit down my throat. Then I have an image of the drum in my stomach getting bigger and bigger again, and then start beating and making music in harmonies with my heart and probably some rumblings going on in my intestines.
RA: That's beautiful.
SA: Thank you for this. Thank you. I really appreciate the time!
RA: I'm so happy to get to talk to you about poetry!