Interview by Harper Wellman
CW: Death, discussion of transphobia
Sam Moore began their writing career while working toward their Master’s at the University of Oxford in 2017. While exploring various forms, Moore found their style, and success, with poetry and short stories, publishing pieces in Harts and Minds, DASH, Fearsome Critter, and Modern Queer Poets. Moore has developed a cross-genre style of writing that is on display in their book, All my teachers died of AIDS, from Pilot Press. Equal parts academic research, pop culture critique, and personal reflections, All my teachers died of AIDS explores the intersection of queer identity and death, and how the inseparable two inform each other. Below, Moore discusses Teachers, their process, their community, and what’s next. Moore is an editor for Third Way Press and a freelance journalist in London, UK.
Thank you for talking with us Sam. Teachers is a wonderful book that I think many people can relate to. Can you talk about how this project came to be?
I spent a lot of time writing very traditional prose when I was finishing up my master’s degree – writing the first half of a novel for my thesis, something I keep saying I’ll come back to, and one day I will… but alongside that, I was also reading more and more experimental work, that existed between different styles and literary traditions. It was the first time I was reading Maggie Nelson, and diving into more of Chris Kraus’ work, and I basically ended up wanting to write something more along those lines, something that defied easy categorization. And then I went to a few of the Queers Read This events at the Institute of Contemporary Art here in London, run by Isabel Waidner, and Richard Porter (who runs Pilot, and would go on to publish the book), and was just incredibly struck by the range and strangeness of queer writing; Isabel read from their novel, Dodie Bellamy read from When the Sick Rule the World, Verit Spott read from Prayers, Manifestoes, Bravery, and it was impossible not to just be swept up in the power of this kind of writing, and wanting to contribute to it in one way or another.
Around the time I went to Queers Read This I also found the courage to start going to open mic nights (even after years of graduate workshops, the thought of actually standing up and reading poems out loud to strangers remains terrifying), and to begin with, I was reading lots of more traditional poems – all of which are from a book about bisexuality called Alex(andra), that I wrote between years one and two of my master’s degree and that I’m still hoping to get out into the world (so if anyone’s interested in publishing it, you know where to find me…) but gradually ran out of material and used that as an excuse to write something new and weird, which eventually became the first section of Teachers. I read it at a launch event for Modern Queer Poets (another book by Pilot that features a poem of mine, alongside some of my literary heroes like Eileen Myles and Wayne Kostenbaum), and jokingly said “it’s part of a longer, book-length poem, so if anyone wants to publish it come and talk to me after the reading.” Rich came to talk [to] me, and the rest is history.
I also think that Teachers kind of captures my development as a writer, in terms of this desire to write more experimental work; something that comes through in the sort of poem/essay hybrid (although structurally I don’t think it’s quite a lyric essay); poetry is the guiding force for the language when it comes to rhythm, line breaks, and the presence of rhyme in the text. But a lot of people have said that the depth of the book is more of an essay; rooted in an argument, in history and criticism, but written in the form of a poem. In their blurb for Teachers, Isabel (the author of We are made of diamond stuff, and Gaudy Bauble), calls it a “personal essay,” and the more time I’ve spent on the book the more I think that rings true. I also think that it’s ended up being a sort of signpost for how much more comfortable I’ve become writing about and through personal experience.
Death is the major theme in Teachers. You discuss how there is danger in being queer and queer love, whether that is the physical act itself, or the threat of a bigoted society. How do you come to terms with the inherited history of HIV/AIDS, that still affects many members of our community? Was this book a way of navigating that?
It’s an incredibly difficult thing to come to terms with, and I feel like I also should acknowledge that it’s probably an easier thing for me to navigate than it will be for other queer people; living in the UK it’s arguably a relatively safe and liberal place (although there are still times when this theory is disproven), and I think as the continued fight for liberation goes on – which it very much is – we need to acknowledge that certain members of our community are more vulnerable than others. The continued quote-unquote debate around trans rights highlights the fact that while for some of us it’s become easier to feel safe, or assimilate, we still need to show up to fight for our trans brothers, and sisters (and those who are both or neither).
Teachers is something that’s more about navigating the past than it’s about offering any kind of roadmap for the present (something that feels vital but would probably be better off being written by someone else). A lot of the book is about coming of age – both from an individual perspective and across the wider landscape of queer history and culture – and is about the shadow of death that remains cast over the queer community. That’s what the book is about coming to terms with (or trying to come to terms with anyway; I don’t think it entirely offers neat closure, but I also think that that’s good), a way of trying to understand – if not accept – the generation of queer people who were taken too soon. And while things are better, the threat of a bigoted society remains; certain victories on politics or policy aren’t enough to erase the very real danger a lot of queer people still face, and I think that’s an easy thing to forget.
Even with HIV/AIDS treatments progressing to where we are today, with viral suppression and PrEP, for some, especially multiply marginalized people, HIV/AIDS is not a thing of the past, and there remains a strong link between the queer community and death. Crimes against our trans and gender non-conforming friends are rising, while the number of hate and white supremacy groups increase. What do you see as the next fight that queer communities must take on to stop these cycles of death and violence?
I think that the next fight for queer communities is one to defend the rights of trans people, which, even in supposedly liberal countries, are under attack; here in the UK, court rulings on trans teens being unable to consent to puberty blockers is a very real threat to trans people. Between that and the continued megaphones given to TERFs and transphobes, it becomes clearer and clearer that liberation is still a ways off, and we need to keep fighting for it.
And it’s things like this that restart cycles of death for queer people; I can’t help but go back to the puberty blockers court ruling, and can’t stress enough the kind of impact that this could have on trans people. Between rulings like this, the continued acceptance of transphobia in a lot of mainstream media, the atmosphere of violence and danger from a generation ago that’s in Teachers is still here today, it’s just that the violence has become more focused on a specific group of queer people. And as much as people like to talk about debating those who disagree on the issue of trans rights, this feels like an inherently disingenuous position to take; so often it forces people in marginalized positions to debate their existence as if it were some kind of Oxford union debating idea rather than the reality of people’s lives.
It felt poignant to read Teachers during the current pandemic. The loss of life, marginalized communities being more harshly affected, and the loss of shared safe spaces, all feel somehow familiarly queer. What effect do you think COVID will have on queer communities moving forward?
Back in Lockdown 1.0 here in the UK in the spring (which feels like forever ago), is when Rich and I first started talking about bringing Teachers into the world, and if this was the best or worst time to do it. In the end, I’m glad we ended up waiting a little while because I always wanted to bring it out on World AIDS Day. Having the conversation did make it clear how strange it might feel to bring out a book about plague during a new plague year (although I find the comparisons between COVID and AIDS to be a bit of a reach, especially when it comes to how politicians have responded; the rapid response for a vaccine is obviously wonderful and should be commended but it also seems to highlight just how stark and long-lasting the government inaction was during the height of the AIDS crisis).
You’re right about the way in which this current outbreak feels uniquely queer, like a kind of echo of queer history. And I think that COVID will impact queer communities in ways that remind us how precarious queer life can still be, and how vital solidarity is moving forward. The racial disparities in COVID mortality rates are something that we need to keep in mind, especially given the fact that communities of colour remain the most heavily impacted by continued cases of HIV/AIDS. This is something that should galvanize people to action, to continue fighting for members of the queer community who continue to struggle and face oppression.
Have you found any new teachers during this pandemic? Have you read/seen/heard anything that has been inspiring you?
I think my reading highlight of 2020 might be Writers who love too much, an anthology of New Narrative writing that was co-edited by Dodie Bellamy; it’s so uniquely queer to me in the way that it refuses to adhere to convention (especially when it comes to writing around politics and sex), and in the way it explores life and literature in inherently intersectional ways. I found myself reading more non-fiction, and specifically more political writing this year, and a highlight from that is absolutely If They Come in the Morning: Voices of Resistance, an anthology edited by Angela Davis about racism, activism, and the prison system that remains vital almost 50 years after its publication.
Finally, I wonder if you can tell us a little bit about your next project, Search History.
I touched on Search History a little at the end of the Teachers launch reading I did on the Pilot Press Instagram (which is still available to watch there, and if people are interested in checking out the book then that’s definitely a great place to start), and just like I did with Teachers at the reading last year – and with Alex(andra) in this interview – I decided to say “if anyone wants to publish this weird book of essays, slide into my DMs.”
Search History is, as the title suggests, about history; both in the big-picture way that Teachers was, but also specifically in reference to a computer’s search history. It’s a series of experimental, lyric essays that each look at different ways in which sex and desire are acts of performance. So the book is about erotic archetypes (cowboys, bikers, schoolgirls), the performance of gender roles, and how that plays into sexual power dynamics, internet porn, and (auto)biography. Like a lot of my writing, it balances pop culture criticism with a dive into specifically queer aspects of cinema, theory, and porn. There’s one essay about catholic schoolgirls and bikers (the two archetypes are tied together through an autobiographical thread), and it touches on Britney Spears, Kenneth Anger, and Kathy Acker.
I’d say about half of the essays have been written in one form or another, and the first one to be published – An elegy to the Nob Hill Theatre, an exploration of the geography of 70s gay porn, and the non-space of the internet archive – is coming out in early 2021 with Take Shape.
With new work to come, Moore continues to explore more topics at the crossroads of queer identities, collective history, and personal experience. In All my teachers died of AIDS, Moore is able to weave together their research, exploring important and morbid topics in an earnest and engaging read that many queer people will find relatable. All my teachers died of AIDS is available now through Pilot Press, and Moore can be found musing on Twitter and Instagram.