Meaning and music in words and poetry

Samuel Ace’s first two books, originally published under the name Linda Smukler, will be republished in early 2019, along with a new collection of work, Our Weather Our Sea.

By Keely Savoie

Samuel Ace, award-winning author and visiting lecturer of English at Mount Holyoke College, finds inspiration in in-between spaces, where boundaries between distinct concepts blur. Creating art, for Ace, has never been about working within a specific medium, but about mastering the skills to work in all mediums for a seamless expression of his creative impulse.

A poet, Ace presents the written word as sound, interlaced with music, challenging and seducing the listener to engage with new ideas. He will present a public performance of his work on February 13 at 4:30 p.m. in the New York Room of Mary Woolley Hall. The presentation is co-sponsored by the English department and the Weisman Center for Leadership.

“At the core of my work I’m a writer, but what I write is very connected to sound and song, to how language exists physically in the world,” Ace said. “My interest is in pushing that out into the world in performance, in the immersive experience of a poem.”

Ace is the winner of the Astraea Lesbian Writers and Firecracker Alternative Book awards, as well as a two-time finalist for both the Lambda Literary Award and the National Poetry Series.

Early aptitude

Ace traces his lifelong creative interests back to his childhood training in classical music.

He didn’t begin writing “seriously,” he said, until he was in his mid-20s. He was inspired by readings from eminent queer poets, starting with his first writing teacher, Gloria E. Anzaldúa, who famously brought queer, Chicana and feminist cultures into the literary limelight.

“Hearing poets like Gloria, Audre Lorde, Essex Hemphill, June Jordan and so many others read their work aloud, I started understanding poetry as centered in the body,  with the physical power to change one as one listens,” Ace said.

As a young adult, Ace majored in studio art at Yale University, then studied visual art through the independent study program at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, while also working on music composition, film, electronic music and multimedia.

It was a natural progression for Ace to incorporate digital technology into the performance of his poetry, using hardware and software to layer the spoken word with sound and music.

Initially using only his phone and a sound mixing app, Ace starting putting his spoken poems into compositions of his own making. As his skill in using digital technology to supplement and enhance the written word evolved, so did the technology he employed. Now he works with more sophisticated MIDI controllers that allow him to create complex sound and vocal mixes, for both live performance and recording.

“I wouldn’t say that digital technology has changed the way I create,” Ace said. “But it has enabled me to take language off of the page and to push past boundaries in the performance of the spoken word.”

Evolving expression and identity

Ace’s interest in liminal spaces fits well with Mount Holyoke, where the liberal arts tradition that prizes knowledge of many disciplines separately has evolved into liberal education among many disciplines. He has received funding for his work through the English department and the Dean of Faculty’s office. Ace’s work also dovetails with the College’s new Digital Arts Initiative and its growing emphasis on crossing the borders between arts and technology.

As much as Mount Holyoke is a place to explore intersections between academic disciplines, it is also a place where concepts of identity can be explored and interrogated: Where doesself end and gender begin? Where is the line between gender identity and gender performance? Ace knows these concepts are no more fixed and unchanging than a single note in a melody.

“Sam is very much about the never-ending intersections of social identities and creative work,” said Ben Sambrook ’19, a gender studies major. “I love the idea of different ideas, politics and disciplines coming together to create something more.”

Sambrook, who comes from Dorset, Vermont, credits Ace with demonstrating the ways in which personal identity, politics, creativity and academic rigor can combine to be more than the sum of their parts. Being a part of Sambrook’s academic journey is exactly the kind of inspiration that girds Ace’s teaching and work.

“As a trans and genderqueer poet and writer, I am truly amazed by — and feel very hopeful about — the wide spectrum of gender and identity on this campus,” he said. “I can’t talk about my work separate from issues of identity, gender and queerness. It’s part of everything I do.”

“Ultimately, by exploring writers and artists who use both text and image, I hope that students will develop work that explores identity through a rich and complex poetic voice.”  

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