Aaron Samuels is a 26-year-old Los Angeles-based poet. Write Bloody Publishing released his first collection of poems Yarmulkes and Fitted Caps in 2013. The collection explores the central theme of identity through the lens of Samuels’ experiences as both a Black man and a Jewish man in the United States.
A native of Providence, Rhode Island and an alumnus of Washington University in St. Louis, Samuels has toured the country as a poet, appeared on Verses and Flow, hosted a TEDx Talk, and is a co-founder of culture site Blavity by and for Black millennials.
First Amendment Media sat down with Samuels to talk about poetry, identity, and Vin Diesel.
1st Amendment Media: How do you define poetry?
Aaron Samuels: As a vehicle that transfers an emotion from the creator to the reader or to the recipient. Oftentimes that manifests in written text…doesn’t always have to be that, but I believe that the poem happens in that moment of emotional transference.
1AM: Is your poetry meant to be performed?
Aaron Samuels: When I start [writing] I don’t always know what the best delivery mechanism is going to be for the poem….I view performance as one tool among many tools that can make a poem effective, just like image, cadence and rhyme, and language and rhythm.
Aaron Samuels, performing “Special Delivery” for the Dark Noise Collective at the 2013 Rustbelt Regional Poetry Slam, in Madison, WI.
1AM: Why have you chosen poetry as the medium to express your ideas?
Aaron Samuels: My dad always said that a poem is the shortest short story…. Something that a poem can do is represent a tiny encapsulation of a singular experience. It allows you to focus in on a portion of an issue ….It can give you permission to not necessarily talk about everything all at once….Poetry as a medium as a young writer really allowed me to say ‘I’m gonna break off this slice.’….I don’t know if poetry is the best medium for me. I think it was the most accessible at the time that I really found writing and continues to be one of the ways that I want to express myself.
1AM: A lot of your work explores your identity as both a Black man and a Jewish man. What do these identities have in common?
Aaron Samuels: Throughout time I believe that there’s been portrayals of the Jew in literature and in culture as slimy, money-hungry, oftentimes ugly and small…. You see that in Shakespeare and in movies….This stereotype is in many ways very emasculating. [It says] ‘You’re not really a man, you’re a snake.’ …. In Black culture in this country, different tactics but same result, in many ways… [a stereotype evolved of] the Black brute…[an] over-hypersexualized beast [that] also serves to emasculate, and says you’re not a full human, therefore you’re not a man. So I think as Black men and Jewish men self-consciously or explicitly we’re told that we have to defend our manhood and we need to assert it in order to prove to the rest of the world that we belong.
“Covered In Grass” by Aaron Samuels
1AM: Your work delves into the painful history of both the Black and Jewish communities. What about the joy?
Aaron Samuels: The stereotypical Jewish prayer is…‘They tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat.’…. One of my favorite Lucille Clifton poems essentially ends by saying celebrate with me that they tried to kill me and failed, which is basically the same thing:
Aaron Samuels: In that failing, every celebration then becomes that much more impressive and that much more important, so when we party, we party. There’s a lot of joy and drink and dance in both sides of my culture.
1AM: What impact do you hope your work has on readers or viewers?
Aaron Samuels: I believe that if I am able to successfully capture a snapshot of myself at a given point in time and capture what the particular polaroid of my identity looks like then it can help enable readers or audience members to do the same for themselves. [They’ll ask] ‘Who am I? And what does that mean?’ And then there’s a moment of connection there. [That’s] when even two people who may not have anything in common both understand that they’re the sum of different identities… ‘You’re a daughter? Oh, I have a mom’….If we’re really going to create true dialogue and understanding across difference, you need a moment of entry. You need a point that you’re willing to say, ‘I have a stake in somebody else’s existence,’ and a lot of my work seeks to create that moment.”
1AM: How have you evolved as a poet and performer?
AS: Thematically, when I was 15, I was really interested in proving a point. I was like, ‘I’ve figured out that this element of the world is problematic and therefore I want to get other people to understand that, too.’ And so a lot of my poems were mission-driven, like, ‘Why don’t you understand that this is racist? Why don’t you understand that war is bad?’ …. Over the course of my development that shifted to, why is that the way it is? …. Now my poems have less answers.
1AM: Are you working on a follow-up to Yarmulkes and Fitted Caps?
Aaron Samuels: I’ve been writing a lot and I have a bunch of poems about a bunch of random, different things, and I don’t think I’ve found the through line yet that connects them all together…. Probably we’re talking 3 to 4 years from now. I’m not putting a rush on it.
1AM: What themes or topics are you exploring now? What might become that through line?
Aaron Samuels: Brotherhood, my grandma, I’ve been writing about Vin Diesel a bunch, and who Vin Diesel represents to America…
1AM: What advice do you have for young writers?
Aaron Samuels: There’s no shame in [a day job.] It doesn’t make you less of an artist. It’s really about finding the thing that gives you the balance to do the art that you need to do.”
For more information on Aaron Samuels, please visit:
To purchase his book Yarmulkes and Fitted Caps, please visit: