NEA Literature Fellowships

Sam Sax

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(2015 - Poetry)

"Putting on Emily Dickinson's Clothes"

i take her discarded bone ribbed corset
and let it give me all the curves of a hand
written poem. pin my black hair up into
an arrogant shape. take a pair of hard
wood shoes and force each foot inside.
i blush and rouge, write sparse rhymed
lines, powder my face white, tie a black
tippet around my throat, fit three fingers
inside deep as they go, each one mine.
i turn up the gershwin and dance without
moving my hips. my empty room, an
audience. yes, the body of the poet, thin
pale eucharist, transubstantiation of flesh
into flesh. even the replica white frilled
garment hanging on a mannequin in her
home is only a replica. i step in and raise
its roof beams, it fits like a reverie worth
reveling inside or just a dead woman's dress.
i take and take until there is only a white
woman folded in her sunday best in a white
cabinet locked in the dark ground. you can't
wear your mother's clothes without becoming
your mother. you can't take on her voice
without also taking her hands and throat.
even boarded up in the body i am still
staring out of windows.

(First appeared in Word Riot)

Sam Sax is a Fellow at The Michener Center for Writers where he's the associate poetry editor at Bat City Review. He's the two time Bay Area Unified Grand Slam Champion and author of the chapbooks, A Guide to Undressing Your Monsters (Button Poetry, 2014) and sad boy / detective (Winner of the Black Lawrence's 2014 Black River Chapbook Prize). He's the winner of The Los Angeles Review and Red Hen Press's 2015 Wild Light Poetry Prize and his poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Boston Review, Indiana Review, The Journal, Ninth Letter, Normal School, PANK, Rattle, Salt Hill and other journals. 

Photo by Hollis Rafkin-Sax

Author's Statement

My flip phone was run over by a bus the week before I got the phone call and I was still trying to figure out how smart phones work. After missing a call from some strange number I called back and refused to give out my name until the person on the other line said they were from NEA. That was all I needed my name is sam sax, my social security number is…, my blood type is….

I'm still trying to come to terms with what it means to receive an NEA grant for poetry, to be both government-approved and amidst the esteemed company of so many amazing contemporary writers, friends, and mentors. Writing poems for me often happens in isolation, talking at my computer until the poem finds some kind of shape, rolling a phrase around the page until it grows legs and teeth, knocking at the weird door that houses the history of literature. Being a queer writer who makes non-traditional desire a central focus in my work I've always felt my place would be in the marginalia of American letters, so getting co-signed by an organization that has supported so many heroes and mentors is an honor that exists outside language.

When I started making poems I was living in a '93 Saturn touring the country with three other poets trying to sell enough hand-bound chapbooks to make it to our next reading. This fellowship's a signpost in the long journey since that car and an important affirmation coming at the heels of completing my first full-length manuscript. This fellowship will allow me the time and moneys to do research for my next collection of poems, which is a mediation on queer masculinities, histories of science and pathologized desire, and the inherited practices of elegy. Also this will enable me to throw my friends the most banging pizza party ever.