Porcine Pasts and Futures: An Interview with Sam Sax

“The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.”

“The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.” So begins the epigraph to Sam Sax’s new collection of poems, Pig (Scriber, 2023). Culled from George Orwell’s Animal Farm, the words ring prophetically in this present age—it’s an uncanny period in history to be discussing the pig in its iterant manifestations. History and memory haven’t been kind to this beast that, in a way, so resembles our own desires and serves as a projective stage for our own actions in this world, and to one another.

In this exchange, poet Sam Sax and psychoanalyst Ricky Varghese discuss everything to do with the pig as a source of poetic inspiration for Sax’s new collection. The pig is both figure and ground here: it serves as foreground to both historicity and memory in these poems, and as background to ruminations about religion, theology, death, violence, and desire. There is nothing that the seemingly “humble” pig can’t do or represent in the poetic sense, whether it is as a harbinger of our dreariest actions, or as a Benjamin-esque angel of history, a witness to history, looking back at us as we peer into its own eyes. Sax’s poems breathe life into the porcine, opening up the human present, as bleak as it appears, to long-departed pasts and the promise of futures yet to come.

Ricky Varghese: I feel that perhaps one way for us to enter this conversation is by me asking … why the pig? I suppose, in another register, I could counter my own question by asking, why not the pig? The pig in your wonderful collection seems to stand for so many, many things, a seemingly endless list—as animal, as beast, as pet, as food, as sex object, as a psychic state, as metaphor, as simile, as symbol, as emblem, even as capital, and as a sort of archive of and for own activities as humans—a figure on to which we imbue so much meaning and yet serves as a sort of kin too, as the Orwellian epigraph to your collection suggests.

So, I am curious about what drew you to the pig—what you refer to as the “humble pig”?

Sam Sax: Very grateful to be talking to you (always) and especially now about this book! I think the “humble pig” was copy from the publisher, which I okayed, but don’t know if that’s the language I would choose to articulate the prismatic and multifaceted figuration of the pig! What first drew me to the pig is precisely that, how multiply realizable it is as an object, animal, and symbol, how it represents multiple positions of power and filth that all reflect back constructions of human systems and the limitations and horizons of the human imagination.

I think, in the same way a poem can offer multiple readings or renderings of an emotional state or experience, a collection can do the same. I didn’t go into this book with an argument to make about the pig, but more of a curiosity. What does it mean when the same three letter word can be used to describe patriarchal and state violence, global food systems, as well as methods of queer resistance and liberation? Pig, for me, exists at this necessary crossroads of violence, disgust, beauty, and transgression. Something I uncovered while working on this project was how through training my lens on the pig, particularly how the animal co-evolved alongside our species, I was able to speak more precisely toward the experience of being human.

What does it mean when the same three letter word can be used to describe patriarchal and state violence, global food systems, as well as methods of queer resistance and liberation? Pig, for me, exists at this necessary crossroads of violence, disgust, beauty, and transgression.

Ricky Varghese: So, in a sense, this collection is an exercise of the imagination—to figure and figure out how differently, depending on context and temporality, we can think of the pig in relation to us.

Recently in a short essay I wrote entitled “What’s Your Pleasure?” in response to Joao Florencio’s new book Bareback Porn, Porous Masculinities, Queer Futures: The Ethics of Becoming-Pig, I cited one of the poems that appear here, “Pig Bttm Looking for Then.” In my essay, I gestured at making a comparison between the figure of the pig, or the pig bottom, and the figure of the angel of history as written by Walter Benjamin, a figure that looks back at the historical wreckage piling skyward as it is being propelled backwards into the future.

The poem inspired me to think of history—jewish history as imagined by Walter Benjamin, queer history as it relates to the AIDS crisis—but also about the future, the many futures ahead of us—the future of sex, the future of intimacy, the future of political life. Would you say that the pig, like the angel of history, seems to evoke a series of contradictions?

Sam Sax: I love that connection you drew with Benjamin, deeply moving. Not sure if I’m really getting at your question here, but I’d say for me, the pig, as I worked on this book, took on these multiple contradictory resonances. Doing my research and reaching back into multiple fraught histories provided a lens that shifted my relationship to the present and future of humanity (as any deep research hopefully will). The history of the pig in relationship to the human is a complex and shifting one that wavers across time, culture, and geography and has taken on multiple complex significations, many of which I try to lay side-by-side in this book.

The book begins with the pig inheriting the earth and ends with us leaving it. As our species co-evolved beside each other, as liturgy and law were written about the animal, as cities were built and were decimated, the pig endured, as they endure still, rewilding and growing feral in sounders after escaping mass agricultural slaughterhouses. In this book, the pig is both the cop and what destroys policing, it is surveillance and the hole through which the queer discovers their own liberation. All this wallowing around, all this searching for meaning in the mud. Again, not sure if this got to your question.

RV: It certainly did! The pig serves as what can both be known and what is yet to be known about us. This knowledge we might derive from the pig about ourselves is both systematic and not, structured and yet not.

As I read the poems in this collection, I was struck by the structure of the book itself—divided into three parts, “Straw,” “Sticks,” “Bricks,” which immediately brings to mind the fable of the three little pigs, a fable itself about structures and what it takes to keep them up, or level them to the ground.

I was thinking about the structure of your book: first, if there was something to how the book was divided into these three sections, but still further, how you chose the sequence of the poems. This might feel like a broad question, but I was wondering how, for instance, the poems “Interpellation,” “Easy Fast Queers,” and “Quarantine A Deux” appeared in the sequence they did? At first pass, the sequencing feels random, but I also feel it doesn’t, that it’s anything but random … maybe I’m reading too much into this, but I was wondering how you laid out the plan for this collection, which I know you spent a few years working on.

SS: Through years of working and reworking this book, the shape and movement of the manuscript took form. I’d say between 30-50 additional poems have cycled their way through and then out of this collection. There’s at once an evolving content and tonal division as we move between sections but also there’s the collapsing of thematic materials and poem sequences that braid across the three. The three-poem run you’re discussing here first exists in my mind to offer up emotional and formal resonance that the poems cross and traffic in. As a reader moves across the collection I want there to be a sense of surprise and inevitability. “Interpellation" is a poem circling a theory of identity formation and desire, “Easy Fast Queers" pours into questions of (con/re)straint and desire, and "Quarantine A Deux" speaks toward being trapped in history and the present at once.

In my mind, how the movement between these poems plays out, is we begin in this grand theory of identity formation that is rooted in transgression as a way of articulating a self (navigating being named and being called into that naming), then “Easy Fast Queers” is thinking through questions of theological repression and desire/hunger, and the final poem in that sequence is the speaker alone in their home due to duelling apocalyptic events that causes them to reflect back on the brief and tenuous history of the human. For the six years I’ve worked on this book, I’ve tried to build the ordering out in a way that pulls a reader through the collection and that offers multiple ways of relating to and responding to the sonic, formal, and narrative elements of the poems.

RV: One could possibly argue that what you suggest as the history of the human is, at its heart, a history of reading—reading alongside and with, reading against, reading otherwise …

Speaking of reading, or reading too much, I’m curious about how you imagine the reader in relation to your work. I know there is no such thing as a singular reader, or “the reader,” but I was struck by the lines “the true ruminants are lowing / attempting to make sense / of the grasses while the shohet / sharpens his blade & turns his attention at last toward the reader” in the poem “On the True Ruminants.” I wanted to get a sense of how you imagined your readers, or the readers of this work in particular, or rather, where you located them in relation to this text. How do you see yourself as a writer in relation to your readers?

SS: The book opens and closes with a potential answer to this question. The first poem ends with a direct address to the reader: “you who have but one mouth to take apart meat, to name yourselves and the inherited species, do your work with care as I have tried and failed here.” And the book closes with: “that you are reading this / must be enough.” I love the intimacy the you in a poem can provide, how it collapses the reader, with the beloved, with the self, with the co-conspirator. Inside the ambiguity and unfixity of the you, there’s a communion and erotics.

I think in the poem you mention here, I was interested in a different kind or relationship with the reader, one that pivots outward in a more shocking way, a breaking of the fourth wall in an Artaudian-adjacent sense (though I have plenty of qualms with that man). I’m interested in thinking of the reader as an active participant in the text, as someone who always co-creates meaning, and what is that wild moment when we feel implicated or addressed by a text we might otherwise passively receive.

The other answer to this question around how I think about audience when I’m writing shifts from poem to poem. Often I’m writing toward friends (or dead writers), either responding to their work, or hoping that the poem I’m writing will make a specific person smile, shudder, sob, or shake their head and laugh (something bodily). Some poems are occasional and written for particular spaces or events. What I love most about reading poems aloud to people is how tactile and shifting the language becomes, that everything from the audience to architecture to the dynamics of a room shifts each time a poem is recited, and through that the poem is made new.

I’m interested in thinking of the reader as an active participant in the text, as someone who always co-creates meaning, and what is that wild moment when we feel implicated or addressed by a text we might otherwise passively receive.

In the end, with a book though, a reader is unknowable, until they make themselves known to you. So mostly, how I think about my readers is mostly just gratitude, deep gratitude toward anyone who chooses to spend time with my poems.

RV: I am sure it wasn’t lost on many of your readers that the publication date for the collection was set right between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur this year. Was this a coincidence or planned?

SS: Entirely a coincidence actually! I think I only realized it a month out (I’m pretty disorganized lol). So for my launch in the Bay Area, since the event was on the last day of Rosh Hashanah, I had everyone do a bit of a queered Tashlikh, where, since there wasn’t a body of water there, we all pulled on some of our sins (personally defined) from our past year and screamed them aloud in a cathartic yawp of noise, letting go of them together.

RV: What you described as a cathartic yawp of noise, the act of atoning or letting go, is a gesture at mourning. As you know, I’m a psychoanalyst by trade. So much of my work in my practice deals with facilitating the act of mourning, the work of grieving, both collective and personal, but also living with and alongside the memory of what is being mourned, grieved, or felt as having been lost. I can’t pinpoint why or how, but there’s a sense of grief just beneath the surface of these poems that I feel … beautiful grief, or joyous grief … but grief nonetheless. I was wondering if we might think of grief in relation to the pig—perhaps, at the bottom of my question is … is something being grieved here? Is the pig an object of mourning?

SS: Thanks for this question. First I wanted to offer up that I’m deeply critical of catharsis, and love Brecht’s critique of Aristotelian catharsis (which I came to through Boal)—they think of catharsis as the thing that deadens political action and mobilizing, that you have your expansive feeling of release in the safety of the darkened theatre, so you don’t take that energy out into the world. That said, I’m also indebted to the gesture of collective mourning, or the shared breath (which has become more fraught since COVID) as a place to push off from, or provides grounding from which to approach the world.

There are multiple kinds of mourning and grief in this collection figured through the figure of the pig—there’s climate grief, the grieving of collapsing food systems, the grieving of a past that is no more, of a childhood that could have been kinder, of dead friends, and generations of dead ancestors, jewish grief, queer grief, pick your poison. There’s also, I think, something rooted in grief perhaps, that makes a more bacchanalian epiphanic move in the later poems of this collection, poems that celebrate from the muck and filth of the world, that reach toward pleasure and heaven from the trash heap, something that the pig, for me, permits.

RV: This feels very true. As such, I think there are layers of theological implications to these poems. The pig doesn’t hold a position of prestige in Judaism and yet you hold this animal with such tenderness in your poems; you honour it with such expansive grace and kindness. To this point, jewishness—what it means to be jewish—is so often a theme in your body of work; the jewish imperative to remember, the commitment towards memory, and a sense of ethics informed by that memory, the demand to consider what one’s inheritances are, the feelings brought on by alienation, estrangement, and movement across large swaths of land and water, all these appear in various ways in your poems.

All of this being said, having followed your work for a few years now, the first thing I noticed in Pig was the absence of the Yiddish inscription, said to have originated from Moses Altshuler. I wondered about this absence, about what had become of this inscription that had followed along with you, from book to book, and yet it wasn’t here. Can you speak a bit about this?

SS: I love this question, and thanks for the thoughtful reading of the arc of my work in this particular tradition. The pig has a fraught and complex relationship to jewish people, during certain eras of religious persecution the rationale for ethnic cleansing was the belief that jews were secretly pigs, which is why we wouldn’t eat them (our own kind). There’s also a fascination, amongst American jewry in particular, with Treyf things and transgression (which, in part, is my entry point to the material), even though I gave up pork while working on this book. And this list goes on and on.

As far as the inscription that is in my last two books, it translates roughly to, “This book is for women and men who are like women in that they cannot read.” At the time Hebrew was the dominant and scholarly language, the language of prayer and men, and Yiddish was a pulpier punk literary movement. When I first heard this phrase was inscribed on certain Yiddish language books, I felt both called to and spoken for, that this is the group of people I’m interested in writing toward and identify with (particularly weirdos and outcasts).

I also think the inscription offers a complex offering into what reading means and who gets to define the parameters of “appropriate” reading and one's relationship to a text. It’s not that I’m not not into this anymore, but I’d say it felt less urgent here than in my previous books. It felt like it was becoming more of a tic or a performative move than an urgent and intentional gesture, similar to the lowercasing of my name (which I’m also doing away with). When I was first putting it in my books it felt like a spell that would call toward my desired reader and name a kind of community, and when I was considering whether to include it in this book it felt as if it had lost some of its power, and I hope the poems will do this work on their own.

When I first heard this phrase was inscribed on certain Yiddish language books, I felt both called to and spoken for, that this is the group of people I’m interested in writing toward and identify with (particularly weirdos and outcasts).

RV: I’m so grateful to you for agreeing to this exchange—it’s been quite meaningful to dig deep into some of the broader questions I had regarding this work and get a sense how you imagined the pig otherwise. As you mentioned earlier, it’s clear that you’re not making an argument here about the pig. Rather, it’s quite evident, your curiosity in relation to the object of your work. I suppose, I want to end here by asking … now that this book is out in the world, what’s next? Where is your curiosity taking you next?

SS: It's been a joy! Grateful for your attention and thoughtful, careful readings here, really appreciate your mind, and you putting it to work on this work of mine.

Where I’m at now, is still slightly stuck on the pig. People keep sending me articles and artefacts that would be beautiful poems, but I’m trying to pivot away and put this project entirely to bed, although my partner’s trying to convince me to release a little secondary pig chapbook, so maybe that’ll be in the world down the line.

My two next larger writing projects are my fourth book of poems, which is going to be a book about disciplinarity, borrowing formal constraints from other art forms and histories of art, largely inspired by my teaching work now in an interdisciplinary arts program. I’m interested here in what can be learned from the history of creative and academic disciplinarity. This will be a largely ekphrastic project in the broadest and more porous sense of that term.

And the other project is my second novel, about ghosts and trans-spectral romance surrounding a used bookstore during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, loosely built around “The Inferno.”

About the authors

Ricky Varghese is a psychoanalyst and writer based in Toronto. He is currently working on two monographs, namely The Look Back: Mourning, Melancholia, and the Madness of Loss, part-memoir and part theoretical exploration on grief, and Leave-taking: Sex, Death, Ethics, a study of suicide and the death drive.

Sam Sax is a queer, jewish writer and educator. They are the author of Madness, winner of the National Poetry Series and Bury It, winner of the James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets. They’re the two-time Bay Area Grand Slam Champion with poems published in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Granta and elsewhere. Sam has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Poetry Foundation, Yaddo, and is currently serving as a Lecturer in the ITALIC program at Stanford University. Their first novel Yr Dead will be published by McSweeney’s in 2024.