Poem Guide

sam sax: “LISP”

A queer childhood and the demand to “sound straight.”
Image of the poet sam sax.

When you’re a kid, it’s not hard to be cute. And what’s cuter than the inarticulate, lisping voice of a young child? Even 200 years ago, Samuel Taylor Coleridge could exclaim in “The Nightingale,” “My dear babe, / Who, capable of no articulate sound, / Mars all things with his imitative lisp.” Many people, however, think of lisping like baby fat: it’s endearing when you’re young, but at some point it draws negative attention from parents, teachers, and (not least) school bullies.

A lisp is sometimes called a sigmatism, and it’s caused by the way the lisper places the tongue near the front teeth while speaking. When a lisper tries to pronounce what’s called a sibilant—sounds that have an s, a z, an sh, or even a soft g—they produce a sound more like a th. For example, the name sam sax would sound something like tham thax. As happens with stuttering, most people grow out of this way of speaking or learn to avoid making their lisping noticeable. Yet a small percentage of people require speech therapy to train themselves to sound “normal” and avoid the unwanted attention lisping brings.

In adults, lisping is often seen as a sign of weakness or effeminacy, and one of the most common stereotypes is the “gay lisp.” According to this stereotype, a lisp in adulthood (or at least a voice perceived as lisping or sissy) supposedly says something about not only that person’s personality but also their sexual orientation. sam sax’s poem “LISP” begins with a recollection of a childhood lisp that has come to be seen as something more than cute and innocent.

sax’s “LISP” is chock full of the letter s and words that make a lisp noticeable. But instead of merely imitating a lisp, this poem’s sibilant poetics reclaims sax’s queer, lisping childhood while also challenging the social stigmas surrounding the lisping voice. Consider just the second line: “my name hinges on the S / is serpentine / has sibilance.” All of the beginning and final s sounds, as in hinges, is, serpentine, has, and sibilance, ask a lot from anyone’s tongue. At the same time, the way sax uses slashes to break most of his lines apart disrupts the regular reading of each line in one breath. A lot of the pleasure of poetry comes from the way it plays with sounds and captivates readers with palpable rhythms. And a bit like Cathy Park Hong’s poem “Ballad in A,” sax’s “LISP” consistently breaks and remakes the language of lisping by making a single letter of the alphabet do so much.

The first thing “LISP” deconstructs is the “sibilance” of sax’s own name:

there are more Ss in possession than i remembered /
my name hinges on the S / is serpentine / has sibilance /
is simple / six lettered / a symbol / different from its sign /
sound shapes how we think about objects / the mouth
shapes how sound spills out / how the speaker’s seen /

Here a moment of personal introspection pivots to a broader understanding of how people find meaning in not only what someone says but also how they say it. Sound shapes not only “how we think about objects” but also “how the speaker’s seen.” An adult’s lisp brings with it plenty of connotations and social stigma, which is not entirely different from how we often judge others by their accent. Especially in sitcoms or comedies, actors regularly use a southern drawl to sound rural or folksy, whereas a vaguely English accent is used as a sign of sophistication—think of the show Frasier. There’s no essential connection between how a person’s voice is perceived and who the person really is, but it’s easy to be lazy and judge people for how they speak and read more into their speech than is intended. This might be because people regularly use tone and inflection to communicate more than words do by themselves.

sax’s lines swell with linguistic and semiotic terminology, such as syntax and symbol, as he blurs the line between describing and interpreting language. It’s one thing to describe a lisp linguistically, and it’s another to reference its social meaning and stigmas. sax does both when he succinctly summarizes his vocal situation: “a sigmatism is the homosexual mystique.” This long clause rolls rather uncomfortably off the tongue, and it refers to the decades-long legacy of movies and TV shows using a high-pitched, fluctuating, lisping voice as a kind of shorthand for being gay. Jack McFarland from Will & Grace and Carson Kressley from the original Queer Eye are some of the most famous personalities whose speech stands out. These characters don’t quite have lisps, but audiences have still learned to associate their particular vocal qualities, especially the way they articulate silibants, with their sexuality.

Despite the anxiety and attention surrounding lisping, most children don’t actually carry their sibilant speech into adulthood. The poem tells us that in sax’s case, his serpentine tongue was straightened out in speech therapy:

a sigmatism is the homosexual mystique / my parents
sought treatments / i was sent to a speech / pathologist /
sixth grade / a student / she gave me exercises / i was
schooled / practiced silence / syllabics / syntax / my voice
sap in the high branches / my voice a spoonful of sugared
semen / ...

The juxtaposition between homosexual mystique and my parents | sought treatments suggests (while leaving it uncertain) that these treatments are as much for the homosexual stigma as they are for the underlying speech impediment. sax’s sixth-grade voice meant more than anyone might have been willing to put into words, and the enjambment between sugared and semen sweeps readers from the sweetness of childhood to the sexual awkwardness of puberty. Speech correction and puberty overlap here, as though sax’s voice became a problem only when he was no longer a little kid. sax leaves it to readers to infer the motivation for sending him off for speech exercises, such as practicing silence and proper syntax.

The poem’s abundant alliteration and measured phrases—particularly in the next line, “i licked silk when i spoke / i spilt milk when i sang”—recall the tongue twisters that some speech therapists use to refine patients’ speech. A classic: “she sells seashells by the seashore.” Another from the musical Singin’ in the Rain, whose plot is all about speech correction: “Moses supposes his toeses are roses.” Speech therapy can be a great tool for building self-confidence, improving communication skills, and avoiding future bullying, but for a child, it can also feel like punishment. Speaking from personal experience, I remember being pulled from class (until the sixth grade) to go take “special” classes with my school’s speech therapist. If having a speech impediment doesn’t make you a target for unwanted attention, getting special treatment at school almost certainly does.

Whatever the mystique or foreboding significance of sax’s childhood speech, his lisp was not allowed to persist as a symbol of a queer life to come. As sax writes: “so | i straightened my sound / into a masculine i.” In contrast to the straightness of a letter such as i, s might just be the curviest letter in the alphabet. And sax’s juxtaposition of straightening and masculinity suggests that he learned more than just how to speak without a lisp. It is not only the voice that must be straightened but also what sax refers to as the i, a deeper, more expansive sense of identity. Behaviors, identifications, and appearances may also need to be straightened out to present oneself as masculine, and parents and caregivers may leave the anxieties fueling these changes unsaid. As sax writes in his poem “ULTRASOUND,” “no wonder she [his mother] wept / red negligee when she walked in / on me at ten in her worst dress /... seeing mother / cry i found myself / into manlier fabrics.” Speech correction risks becoming part of a larger, often unspoken, heteronormative program of ensuring children grow up to be—or at least act and look—heterosexual.

As Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has discussed in “How to Bring Your Kids Up Gay: The War on Effeminate Boys” (1991), psychiatrists and psychoanalysts have all too often thought that the only way to be a “healthy homosexual” male was to act typically masculine from childhood to adulthood. Sedgwick points out that by the 1980s, mainstream psychiatry no longer considered same-sex desire a diagnosable condition, but it had re-pathologized gender-nonconforming or “effeminate” behaviors of boys in desire’s place. The diagnosis of homosexuality was removed in the revised third edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (commonly referred to as the DSM) in 1987, but the third edition re-pathologized effeminate male behavior under diagnoses like “Gender Identity Disorder of Childhood.”

“LISP” speaks to this recent history by helping readers imagine how practices as seemingly benign as speech therapy risk contributing to what Sedgwick describes as the larger, societal “wish that gay people not exist.” Psychiatry, psychoanalysis, and speech therapy have shared the assumption that a child’s life will be better overall if certain aspects of their behavior, gender expression, and speech are “normalized” or “corrected.” But these individual traits are framed as personal defects without recognizing the larger social contexts that lead to bullying, misunderstanding, and discrimination. Whether we could ever understand the intentions of parents and specialists or not, the slash mark (/) sax places between “speech / pathologist” highlights this potential for speech therapy to devolve into pathologizing a lisp as part of “unhealthy” gender expression. Straightening out the tongue is then like straightening out the person, as the gay-lisp stereotype is used as a key for explaining everything wrong with the child’s social and sexual development.

“LISP” never essentially links queerness with a lisping voice, but it does delight in playing with the stereotype and reframing childhood lisping as something more than a medical condition. Without discounting the medical reality of speech impediments, disability studies scholar Joshua St. Pierre reminds us that like other forms of disability, a speech impediment “is a distinctly social phenomenon that cannot properly be reduced to the physical difficulty of producing sounds, but must be situated within its social fabric.” Essentially, the lisping voice does not exist in isolation: there is always another person being spoken to not to mention the society-wide norms that regulate speech. So why is the lisper always expected to change? The fact that treatments from a specialist are required to help children “straighten” their speech goes to show that the ideal masculine voice is a social construct. A typical male voice is no more “natural” than a voice seen as effeminate; present society just privileges voices deemed manly, firm, controlled—in a word, “straight.”

The titular lisp of sax’s poem may have been straightened out, but the remainder of “LISP” recollects and reframes his bygone lisp as a part of himself. Some studies suggest that lisping is hereditary, and sax identifies his “swishiness” as a part of his “hebraic,” or Jewish, roots. As he suggests, the Greek letter sigma can be traced back to the Semitic letter shin [ש]. The dark phrases “no | matter what was sacrificed / the tongued Isaac” reference the biblical story in which Abraham hears the voice of God commanding him to sacrifice his son Isaac atop a mountain; Abraham leads Isaac to his unknowing death before an angel intervenes. The story of Abraham and Isaac has been continually reinterpreted and rewritten across the millennia, but in this context, it might help us reflect on how far parents will go to follow supposedly higher commandments about how to raise their children.

sax takes up the subject of his intersectional queer and Jewish identity again in the poem “Treyf,” which opens with the line “feygele is yiddish for the way i walk into a room.” We might translate feygele literally as “little bird,” but the word is common Yiddish slang for a gay man. sax further pursues feygele’s various associations—“sure i was hatched / into a world that expected me to fly straight into power- / lines”—as he challenges the familial and social expectations put onto him. If “Treyf” is about navigating queer and Jewish identities, “LISP” is about the twitterings of a little bird still under its parents’ wing.

The mythological tongue twister “sisyphus with the sissiest lips” suggests that despite his torments, sax’s lips remain as provocative and smiling as ever. Referencing a more modern mythology, “parseltongued | assassin” takes us to the wizarding world of Harry Potter, especially The Chamber of Secrets, where Harry shocks his classmates with his ability to speak the hissing, Slytherin language of snakes. Harry’s serpentine tongue ostracizes him from most of the school because he is suspected of being the wicked heir of Slytherin. The whole of “LISP” is an exercise in parseltongue as it hisses back at social stigma and repression.

The very end of the poem returns readers to the present, with an ironic admission that the unspoken, heteronormative aim of speech therapy has ultimately failed:

                                                                                … / now
when i say please / let me suck your cock / i sound
straight / as the still secondhand / on a dead watch.

The last complete phrase of the poem is the only one without the letter s: “on a dead watch.” For me, still and dead suggest the alarmingly high rate of suicide in queer and gender-nonconforming youth (an issue that Sedgwick led her essay with in 1991). But the tone of these last lines is a mixture of playful and matter-of-fact, and it shows that although sax may have learned his manners, his masculine straightening did not root out his queer desires. This poem could be read as an elegy for a queer childhood that others forcibly tried to straighten out, but I prefer to read it as a testament of survival and the reclamation of sax’s “sissy” voice that drew so much attention. Time stops, if only briefly; as at the end of Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood,” we are left reflecting on those childhood moments when so much seemed possible.

Poets often excavate language for meanings and associations we might otherwise miss. sax’s poem reminds us that although symbols and signs may be arbitrary, the words we use have significant social meaning, and this meaning trickles all the way down to how we pronounce them. Our families, schools, jobs, and social circles all encourage us to speak a certain way, but a poem is a chance to let a different voice be heard.

Originally Published: January 11th, 2021

Jeffrey Careyva (he/him/his) is a PhD candidate studying English literature at Harvard University. His research focuses on modern poetry and disability studies, especially the rhetoric and perceptions surrounding speaking disabilities. He is currently working on a dissertation about neurodiversity, disability, and formal experimentation in modern literature.

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