In honor of Pride Month, we invited Sam Herschel Wein to talk about his creative writing process and poetic influences in an email interview. You can read his poem, “Hey Fat Boy” in our Spring 2017 issue.
Pretty Owl Poetry: Your bio says that you work in gender/sexuality health research. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Sam: Oh yes, I would love to share about my day job in my adult life! I work for a children’s hospital in Chicago, assisting with research about how LGBT youths manage their substance use, and the way it impacts their sexual health. I’ve worked in the HIV field for some time, previously working in a housing program for formerly homeless individuals who were impacted by HIV. I also did research on HIV and male circumcision in undergrad! So I guess this is, perhaps, the culmination of all of that. Also, my job brings in free bagels every Monday. And you can’t ask for more than that.
POP: On your website, you reference a lack of queer representation in the media while growing up. How has this affected your work?
S: Well, I think this question has many layers, but I will do my best to address all of them. Growing up queer, for me, was feeling that there was an innate difference in me that set me apart from those around me. I couldn’t relate to others, I loved and lusted for things that I was bullied, teased, and made to feel nothing for, and I began an entirely secret life at the young age of eleven: kissing boys in basements, sneaking to the gay romance section in bookstores, watching America’s Next Top Model, for Jay, and even, around fourteen, starting to dabble with online chatrooms and talking to boys through myspace. There was an entire slice of life that I lived that nobody around me had any access too, because it was completely secretive. And that was how it had to be, because I had never seen a gay couple, had never known two men to fall in love or hold each other or keep each other alive. When I started coming out in high school, whenever anyone asked what it meant for my future, I would always say, “I have no idea,” because I had never seen it. I never knew what it looked like, as a young person, to have a future that could be mine. It was isolating, it sparked years of severe depression and anxiety, and honestly, made me question, constantly, if it was even worth continuing to go on in my life.
But I did go on. And I’m grateful for that strength, all the time. Which, I guess, gets to my work. For queer folks trying to share our narrative, there aren’t many people who have done what we want to do before, so there is an aspect of building your own lane. And then, when we write books, or create television, we are put into identity–labeled boxes, queer fiction, LGBT drama, lesbian poetry, and those that come after are ridiculed and pressured for deviating, even slightly, from what everyone thinks of when they think of those genres. I had a professor in college tell me, this essay is good, almost like poetry (at that time I did not consider my writing as poetry), but it’s nothing like Frank O’Hara, even though the subject matter is the same. And I sat there, like, what? What about this is the same? That we are both gay? Because he gave me one of O’Hara’s books of poetry, and that was the only similarity I could find, at the time, between the essay I wrote and the book I was devouring. But I did love the poems. What’s not to love about Frank O’Hara?
So. I guess what I am trying to say is that I recognized early on that I wanted to help write and create the queer stories I wasn’t seeing anywhere else. There is so much of that work still left to do, because of how slow the progress has been in both creative writing and media spaces, that it’s honestly a bit refreshing, if I could push myself to be brave enough to write it. Which isn’t to say that I think people will invest in us and listen to us, because from what I’ve seen, the art and media world has shown pretty clearly they aren’t willing to do that. But I believe in the resilience and power of queer-identified folks. I believe in our abilities to take and demand what we are not being given or awarded, and either continue to build our own worlds from scratch, or be so much better than these boring, straight writers, they have no choice but to read and develop our work and ideas. And I am mindful of this all the time, when I write, when I edit for journals, when I choose what television and movies to support. I mostly see movies these days based on the politics of their making. It’s an added bonus if they are really wonderful movies. I think “Moonlight” is a clear choice for a movie that has excelled beyond anyone’s expectations, in quality and in what it stands for, although Hollywood couldn’t have given less of shit at the start of the project. I mean, I could go on. But I’ll stop there.
POP: Who are some of your LGBTQIA influences? What are you reading now?
S: Goodness gracious, there are so many! I don’t even know where to begin! The greatest influence on me, as a writer and person, has been from my very best friend, Chen Chen. I met Chen at my first ever writer’s workshop in Amherst, Massachusetts, and since then, Chen has mentored me, taken my hand and taught me poets that have changed me, and exposed me to entirely new queer poetics. I mean – the queer poetics are not new for most people, but I was too scared to consider myself a poet before I met Chen.
Through Chen’s influence, I’ve read so many incredible writers, though I discovered a few on my own, I guess. I return, all the time, to The New Testament by Jericho Brown. A completely stunning book, from beginning to end. I just finished Tommy Pico’s IRL and I don’t think I’ve cried more times reading a book, ever, than I just did with his. I’ve been in love with francine j. harris’s book, play dead, for the past few months. And didn’t it just win the Lambda Literary award? How awesome is that? A few others: just finishing D.A. Powell’s Useless Landscape or a Guide for Boys, which feels incredibly necessary. Next on my list is Derrick Austin’s Trouble the Water, which I just purchased and am ready to dive into. Kathleen Finneran, one of my first writing professors, wrote a memoir called The Tender Land that I return to, almost once a year, for my heart. I keep re-reading Lidia Yuknavitch’s memoir, The Chronology of Water. And then, finally, Chen’s debut collection, When I Grow Up I Want to Be a List of Further Possibilities is, in my mind, the most crucial book of 2017, though I am biased. I just love what Chen does on the page. Every time I read through his book, I get more from it. It’s so special.
POP: If you could get rid of a certain type of weather, what would it be?
S: Oh, but I love weather! And I love when the weather varies, and I love when seasons change and one day is so sunny you cry from the brightness and the next it rains the entire day and you get all your blankets out from under the couch. I don’t think I could live in a place that always has the same weather. It’s why I’m hesitant to visit Seattle (someone is going to yell at me for saying that). I guess, I don’t enjoy days of excessive grayness, or entire weeks of overcast sadness. Those are hard weeks for me, and there’s a lot of them in Midwest winters. So if I had to choose, I would get rid of gloomy weather times.
POP: Best cure for heartache?
S: Omelets with at least four kinds of cheese, commissioning your friends for custom-made art that matches the levels of your sadness, girls just wanna have fun on repeat, texting approximately 2-4 exes, lying on the floor with your friends, lying on the floor with a book in the sun, going to a dog park without a dog, a really good smoothie from a mall, buying yourself a cute tank-top, and reading the inaugural issue of Underblong!! (such a plug, I know).