Adam Zmith: sniffing out the history of poppers

Adam Zmith is fascinated by the history of poppers. So much so, he has written a book about it. Vada Magazine sat down with him to discuss where his interest in poppers came from, and why he thinks this part of our LGBTQ+ history is something we should all know about.

I’m sitting at my kitchen table listening to Adam Zmith recall his first experiences with poppers, his impressive collection of indoor greenery forming the backdrop to our video call. The writer and podcast producer has just published Deep Sniff, a book which explores a history of the inhaled chemicals that are now ingrained in queer culture, yet few have stopped to think about how amyl and other nitrates shifted from the lab to gay bars and bedrooms.

One of his most vivid memories of poppers was one New Year’s Eve. “I was alone, watching porn, and sniffing poppers,” he tells me. “I had a really wonderful solo sexual experience with the porn, and the poppers, and myself, and the fireworks going off outside. I was like, ‘Wow I know what this is about!'”

How was he introduced to them in the first place? “I don’t remember exactly how,” Zmith replies. “But one of my earliest memory of poppers was when I went to a hook-up that turned into a threesome, and the other two guys were doing poppers.” Not knowing what the pair were inhaling, Zmith declined their offer to try. “Then I must have wanted to investigate more, because I did buy some for myself after that.”

Given his own positive experiences with poppers, does he view this book as a means of promoting poppers? “I have found other things to do with my body, and other ways of feeling things; I guess that is one of my motivators for sharing the story of poppers. Not to promote them as such, but to advocate for this idea that there is always more potential to your body than you might have experienced so far.”

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In fact, Zmith makes it clear that he is not attempting to persuade his readers to start using poppers. Deep Sniff, he explains, is more of a “manifesto for pleasure and bodily potential”, as well as being an exploration of identity, sex, and freedom.

Nor is it a definitive exploration of their history. “On the one hand, the book is a history of poppers, it is not the history of poppers,” Zmith clarifies. “It is a way of thinking about our bodies and the freedoms that we give ourselves, and the way we can respect our bodies to explore their potential. I focus on that in the sense of sexual potential, and the performance of gender or character expression.”

The story behind Deep Sniff begins with a talk that Zmith delivered about poppers and their history. As someone who uses them, and knows other people who do, poppers would come up in conversation. However, Zmith quickly realised that not many people knew much about them. “And actually people are surprised that there is even history about poppers to look into,” he says. “It felt like a bit of a void that I had and other people had; and as a writer that felt like a call to action to look into their history.”

From visits to the Wellcome Library to internet searches, 2019 saw Zmith embarking on putting together his talk for Fringe! the queer film and arts festival. Yet he was only skimming the surface of their history, so used lockdown as an opportunity to turn his idea into a book proposal, before pitching it to his publisher.

I ask Zmith about why he thinks it is important for an LGBTQ+ readership to learn more about their history. “Generally the importance of LGBTQ+ history for people in the community and others is that we’re in a really amazing, hot moment right now. So much is being done for our history, where loads of stories and objects and papers are really being investigated, and subsequently written about, podcasted, and documentaries are being made about it.”

Zmith continues, “These objects were previously censored or self-censored, because many people kept traces of their sexual identity secret to protect themselves, and often official record-keeping by governments has not respected or defined these things. There is a huge movement right now for protecting and finding these things, and sharing these stories. Specially around LGBTQ+ history, it’s about where we came from, and how we think about ourselves, and how we can continue to identify and evolve, and challenge our way of thinking.”

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He believes that people will want to read this book, because this aspect of our history remains mostly undiscovered. “Poppers have a unique and enduring story that has not been told before. I think that’s enough to get people over the line to read about them. I think that most people don’t know very much about them, and that’s fine, but there’s that basic human curiosity which I think will get people interested about the history of poppers.”

Deep Sniff is also an exploration of freedoms and the factors that inhibit them. “Poppers make me feel full of potential and help me realise the freedoms that my body wants to express and explore,” Zmith tells me. “It is otherwise not doing that, because of things like inhibitions and shame.”

Zmith describes to me the notion of external and internal “poisons” that prevent us from reaching our full potential and freedom. “It’s about removing those poisons from us, things like shame, and in many cases categories and labels, which inhibit us as people. If I can encourage people to think about those things in the book, which I’m tricking them into reading by saying that it’s a cute book about the history of this fun drug, then I’ll be pleased with that.”

Speaking of labels and categories, which ones would Zmith use to describe himself? “I mean there’s loads,” he replies. “Writer, talker, wanker, doer, podcaster, art producer, male, cis-gendered, gay, queer, Northern… That’ll be enough.”

He says that the issue of labels came up as he was writing this book, because poppers are predominantly connected to gay male subculture. Although Zmith identifies with the terms gay, man and male, he tells me that these words haven’t always sat comfortably with him, especially when he was denying his sexuality, or thinking he wasn’t “man enough” due to the things he liked or the way he presented himself.

“I thought, I’m telling this history that is so heavily related to gay male subculture, and I’m a gay male who is looking into this, yet I don’t really feel that comfortable doing that,” says Zmith. “A lot of people today say ‘speaking as a gay man’ and they’re checking their privilege there, which is a well-intentioned thing, but if I say that, I feel it is so limiting to say that phrase.”

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This internal reflection allowed Zmith to explore how categories and labels can be just as limiting and inhibiting. “To me the labels and the categories that we use are just as much perpetrators of those inhibitions as other things.”

Having written this book during lockdown, its publication is now coming at a time of liberation. With this, comes the opportunity for Zmith to engage with readers, something which he tells me has been enjoying. “I would like to write a lot more books, yet I don’t think I’m going to have as much fun as I’m having with promoting this book. The very topic that this book is about, poppers, just makes people smile. I’m putting a book out into the world which is about pleasure, which is in itself a pleasurable thing to do.”

There is also a surprise amongst readers that there is enough of a story behind poppers to fill a whole book. “But we’re living in a time when you can pretty much publish a book about anything, which is great for me,” he laughs. “I’ve been doing a mix of online and real life events, and it’s been great to interact with readers and listen to people’s own experiences of poppers.”

As well as writing more books, Zmith is turning his attention to his award-winning podcast The Log Books, which he co-hosts with Tash Walker and Shivani Dave. Now in its third season, the podcast opens up the log books of Swtichboard, the LGBT+ helpline, where volunteers have been writing notes of untold queer stories since 1974.

He has also started his own podcast company, focusing on projects about queer history, and projects that include queer history. What’s more, he will be organising four events in November for Fringe! something which he tells me is quite the undertaking.

Despite his seemingly exhausting schedule, I get the impression by the end of our interview that Zmith is clearly passionate about queer history – something which doubtless feeds his desire to continue to share the stories from our community’s history that are waiting to be told.

“I’m hoping to take December off,” Zmith says, optimistically.

Deep Sniff by Adam Zmith is published by Repeater Books.

About Hadley Stewart

Hadley Stewart is Features Editor at Vada Magazine.