Richard Siken’s poems recycle and re-imagine dramatic scenarios between men, birds, the moon, rabbits, foxes. The stories never end, they expand like a field where every new interaction, every reimagined dialogue and scenario pushes the borders of the imaginary fence of the field further out until there are no fences, there is only field.
Ten years ago I told Richard there wasn’t enough room and I felt like everything had already been said, that the buckets were full. He told me the bucket is never full, that the bucket has imaginary holes, that even holes have holes, and things are passing through, and when the bucket looks full, you can always imagine bigger buckets and I think also he was kind of saying to me you need to get over the bucket / lunch pale / filling thing metaphors.
He gave me a Jack Spicer book and a Kathy Acker book and said I’ve got to go now and then he disappeared.
Ten years later we had a conversation.
In that space between I think what he was trying to teach me is not what to say, because people say a lot of shit. He was trying to teach me a lesson about being quiet. And in that quiet I learned there are many loves and they stretch out. Romantic loves, yes. Of course. But just as strong, even without the kisses (although sometimes there are kisses too), is the love of friendship.
JL: When is the first time you thought of yourself as a poet?
RS: Well, I started writing in High School, and I wasn’t very good, so I didn’t consider myself a poet. Then I kept writing in college, and because I was sticking to it, I might be something, but probably still wasn’t a poet. And then I took some classes on poetry and realized I needed to read a whole bunch of stuff and then I might be a poet. And then I wrote something that made someone cry and then I became a poet.
JL: How old were you when you made someone cry?
RS: It took me until I was in my twenties. It took me that long.
JL: Did you make anyone cry before writing poems?
RS: I made them cry before writing poems and I made them cringe by writing poems. But I couldn’t actually get a tear out of the eye just by saying.
JL: So did you realized the power of poetry once you made someone cry?
RS:I think that’s one of the powers. I hope there are more powers, but it’s certainly the second one we go to.
JL: What is the first one?
RS: Kisses. Flirts and kisses.
JL: So you kiss them first and then make them cry?
RS: No, I was thinking you use poetry for dates. And then you write poems about how you couldn’t get a date and then make everyone cry. I haven’t been able to seduce anyone with my poetry. But I have, however, seduced lots of people with other people’s poetry.
JL: Speaking of seduction, you once told me you had to pick people to fight as a poet or pit yourself against.
RS: Well I noticed that if I only read the work the of the greatest poets in history that I would feel defeated, so by reading work that I didn’t like, I reminded myself that I still had things to say, and that there was room to do it my way. And you know I was fighting the Spanish language poets for awhile because I wanted to be seductive, sure, and then I gave up on love entirely and now I want to be like the Polish language poets and say something big and sad and historic.
JL: Your first book to me was really cinematic, and your second book, your new book has to do with the act of painting?
RS: One of the things I wanted to do was complicate writing by adding in a subtext, or subplot, or context of a different art. I liked the sense of time in the cinema, of “now and then,” and so I used that in Crush, and the new work is “here and there,” and painting seemed to do that. So really I’ve only talked about “now and then” and “here and there.” I guess next will be “up and down.” So I guess I’ll have to try and write love poems again. Love poems based on dance?
JL: So you went from kissing to crying?
RS: I went from crying to yelling, so maybe the next book will be laughing, but I don’t know if I’m mature enough for laughing, so laughing might keep getting postponed.
JL: The new book is called War of the Foxes. We’ve been at war for what seems like the entirety of my life, like really it doesn’t stop. How is it that you came to address war in the book?
RS: We’ve been at war since before I was alive. We are great aggressors and I wanted to ignore that, as an American, and just cry about love, and I’m not a soldier, and I’m not on the frontline, and I felt like I had no authority to speak to it. But I also feel like I have the responsibility to not ignore it. I live in a town with an air force base, so I see people come home, and they are messed up, and have prosthetic limbs, and still that’s not my experience of the war, but the aftermath. I tried really hard to find an angle in. I tried to imagine I have enemies. But really, I don’t have enemies, but I do have opponents. And once I realized I have opponents that was my way into the work. So suddenly there were opponents, and confidants, and spies, and battlefields and documents.
JL: When you discuss these things through allegory and fable, how have those devices helped you work through this content?
RS: I had to deal with the fact that I already made something, put into the world a representation through Crush. Because so many people thought of my previous work as being true, as being autobiographical, I wanted to subvert this reading by using fable, by using talking animals. I wanted to see if I could take myself out of it somewhat, so that the work would be my thinking rather than my autobiography. In my first book everyone wants to know, did it happen? Did it really happen? How much of it happened? And if I answered that it happened people would ignore the poem and say, “oh you are a sad little man.” But if I said no, it didn’t happen, then they would hopefully be confronted with a work of art. And they’d have to deal with their discomfort. So allegory in the new book seems to be a really great way to leave people uncomfortable with the ideas rather than having them feeling personally attacked.
JL: After the first book you would get a lot of personal fan mail about the book, maybe you could speak to what it was like to receive some of those responses.
RS: There’s some point where no matter how invested you are in a piece of work, you have to let it go, and what happens to it has nothing to do with you anymore, and even if still tickles you or charms you, it’s suspect.
I think the day that I got the email from the young man who said, “I don’t know if I should be telling you this, but I feel I have to tell you this: My girlfriend hanged herself last night and she left your poem “Scheherezade” as her suicide note.” Well once I got that email I was pretty much done caring what people did with the work, because I wasn’t complicit and couldn’t be complicit and could no longer take ownership of the good or the bad responses people had to the work.
I talked to a friend after and said to them, you know, this really concerns me. And their response was “how beautiful it is that you are so vain that you think you wrote the suicide poem of this generation.” Which reminded me that I should lighten up when thinking about what people do with the words.
JL: You are from Tucson, which is not a big coastal city like New York or Los Angeles, what is it like to be from the southwest as an American? I mean what is like, generally, to be an American poet?
RS: I think I’ll have a better sense of what it means to be an American once I leave America. I know that I understood what it was like to be a southwestern writer once I left the southwest. People think the southwest is howling coyotes with bandanas and cowboys with guns, and it can be, but when I realized I was a southwestern writer was when someone called me out on my use of light and shade. I didn’t realize that light in my work was punishing and shade was relieving and snow was mythic. So I know that the work is informed by my environment in ways I didn’t expect.
JL: How has being an editor shaped your writing?
RS: I think it shaped my sense of community in addition to being able to read the poets who are currently doing work. Community and involvement. I think also, you know, reading and accepting work has a lot to do with the moment. Sometimes you will reject a lot of great work based on your mood. So I was able to look and discuss current trends and how the editorial staff was creating a collection of authors and their work based on our current state, on our mood. And then when I used to introduce the work, I would try to compare what we were publishing in the magazine with a published poem of some renown, not to be too obscure, as an angle of approach to introduce these writers.
JL: Your work appeals to a lot of people who don’t normally read poems. Is American poetry too obscure? Is your use of allegory a way for people who don’t read poems to enter the work?
RS: Well I hope there will always be the great continuity on both sides of obscurity and obviousness. I want as many different types of poetry as there are degrees in possibility. I want poems you won’t ever be able to figure out and I want poems that are so obviously true, that they strike you as half witted. Because I want options. I do have a large readership because some people say I don’t write poems, I write pop songs. I’d like to stay out of the debate on where to place my work, but I hope there are delights in it. And certainly I want to have meaning and evoke meaning. I love difficult poetry and I’d love to write difficult poetry, but it’s just not the way I sing. But if we are not confronted with something difficult, then there isn’t a place to grow.
JL: I was wondering after winning the Lambda and Thom Gunn Award, as a gay male poet, does that have a pigeon-hole effect, like do find yourself being marketed first as a gay writer, and having that label obscure readings people give to your work?
RS: We both studied under Jane Miller (a famous poet whose early work was groundbreaking in the LBGT community), so we both heard a variety of ways in which she talked about this. The one way I remember her talking about this clearly was like this: Where do you want to be shelved? Do you want your work to be shelved in poetry or in gay studies? And I think that was more important when we had actual shelves. And it was a choice between shelves. I’m really enjoying the hasthags. Because now my poems can have #gay, #makes you cry, #talking animals, #wtf. So, because there are so many tags, I’m having more fun with it. On a deeper level, one of the reasons we have gay studies and trans-gender studies is because we are trying to figure out the “other.” I think what happens in art, all art, made by people who are “other” is usually a friction of identity, or a questioning of multiple identities. Certainly in my first book Crush there was a conflation between “you” as a speaker or future speaker or one “you” or a variety of different “yous”. One of the reasons, strangely, that you can’t talk about gay love is because of pronouns. There is a confusion and problem in terms of a he talking to a he, he said, he said, he did, he did, there is a complication that happens immediately. That complication was interesting to me, so I broke into that.
There isn’t a single moment of gay love in the new book and yet I think it is significantly within the realm of gay studies because it is about doubling, and selves, and identities. And I think that is a consideration that happens with “otherness”. But in the new work there are bunnies which are confused. So the confusion happens within these animals. I mean I wanted to write the most subversive book I could that couldn’t be banned, because you can’t put your finger or label the subversion. So fable worked really well this time. I could talk about identity and war and I could talk about family problems, because everyone has family problems, and that can sound very plain if told from a first person speaker, it could sound very common, but when bunnies and fishsticks and moon start talking about these things, it makes for more satisfying moments.
From War of the Foxes:
The father works late. The dead wife’s hand makes fishsticks while the boy sits in the corner where
he fell. The fish in the fishsticks think to themselves This is not what we meant to be.
JL: The fishsticks depress me. Every time I see fishsticks in the store they break me.
RS: It’s the saddest line in the book. I thought one day, am I the man I’m meant to be? And I thought to myself, what a mousey and nostalgic idea for someone who is supposed to be this ferocious bad boy of poetry. And I was like, I’m getting weary in my old age. But I realized it was not the concept that was weak, but the framing that was weak, and once I had something else responsible for the situation of the idea, it finally worked.
JL: In terms of poetry in the Unites States, there is a big rush to publish. You have one book, and a second book with a ten year window in between. What is your scope of time in terms of publishing and writing new work.
RS: I think it took me ten years of writing to work through Crush and then it took me ten more years to figure out why Crush made me feel the way I did. And I think now I might be able to put out books more quickly, but after Crush, which was about not knowing what to do with your hands. And I thought, well don’t put out a second book until you know what to do with your hands. And the new book is about what to do with your hands, and you know I can be really thickheaded sometimes so it took me ten years to work through that question.
After I finished Crush, I didn’t know what I had to say and I got bored. So I got paint and started pushing out the paint from the tubes and pretty much nothing happened for a really long time. But then after awhile I ended up with things that were worth keeping, because something happened with the paint, because there was something the hand could say that the voice couldn’t. And that was something I started to follow. So I wanted to address the idea of representation, and I did that through painting, so poems about painting fill up a significant part of this book. I had to cross-train, do something else to have something to talk about.
JL: Originally you were thinking about using a painting of a man without a face for the cover, what made you think that would be a good representation for your work?
RS: Well this goes back to the idea of identity. There is a man who is trying to place himself, a landscape, that he keeps panting himself in and painting himself out of, where he is trying to find a version of himself worth inhabiting. The image of the smeared face, in the end, was too absolute and too obvious. So it was too open ended, too static of an image. Because there is a poem at the beginning of the book with him inside, we went with the man with his head on fire in a yellow field instead of the faceless man.
JL: This book is a lot about singing. Your first book had songs inside the book, but not the act of singing per se, so what fascinated you about singing?
RS: I think in the first book the speaker is talking to himself, or to a very limited audience. Most of Crush is silent, besides the speaker speaking in silence. I wanted to open that up. But I think I’m a little lighter of heart now. But really it’s trickery. Independent of the book, people in reality think I’m a liar instead of a storyteller. Everyone gets mad at me because I talk about impossible things, and people, well people are gullible. I mean even talking at a bar, drunk, at a table of strangers, I start talking about how I live on the moon and people get offended that I’m lying to them. So singing is a way of speaking to them, a nod to saying, this is a song and not necessarily the truth, that this is a fable, and not necessarily the truth, and I’m having fun and perhaps this is not really my autobiography. It’s supposed to be storytelling, lying and singing, and if it doesn’t work in this book, then I’m going to be declarative from now on and just say “here is a big old singing lie.”
A song can knock you to the floor, but when you are singing and say you are singing, it’s easier to deflect the emotional charge of what you are doing. I mean it is not your transcript, your resume. Although I still don’t know how to say it exactly. This is not my autobiography. So there is more work within me. I mean everyone wants to think they have their best books in front of them. I’d like to think I have more work within me. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.
From War of the Foxes courtesy of Copper Canyon
The Way the Light Reflects
The paint doesn’t move the way the light reflects,
so what’s there to be faithful to? I am faithful
to you, darling. I say it to the paint. The bird floats
in the unfinished sky with nothing to hold it.
The man stands, the day shines. His insides and
his outsides kept apart with an imaginary line—
thick and rude and imaginary because there is
no separation, fallacy of the local body, paint
on paint. I have my body and you have yours.
Believe it if you can. Negative space is silly.
When you bang on the wall you have to remember
you’re on both sides of it already but go ahead,
yell at yourself. Some people don’t understand
anything. They see the man but not the light,
they see the field but not the varnish. There is no
light in the paint, so how can you argue with them?
They are probably right anyway. I paint in his face
and I paint it out again. There is a question
I am afraid to ask: to supply the world with what?
Landscape with a Blur of Conquerors
To have a thought, there must be an object—
the field is empty, sloshed with gold, a hayfield thick
with sunshine. There must be an object so land
a man there, solid on his feet, on solid ground, in
a field fully flooded, enough light to see him clearly,
the light on his skin and bouncing off his skin.
He’s easy to desire since there’s not much to him,
vague and smeary in his ochers, in his umbers,
burning in the open field. Forget about his insides,
his plumbing and his furnaces, put a thing in his hand
and be done with it. No one wants to know what’s
in his head. It should be enough. To make something
beautiful should be enough. It isn’t. It should be.
The smear of his head—I paint it out, I paint it in
again. I ask it what it wants. I want to be a cornerstone,
says the head. Let’s kill something. Land a man in a
landscape and he’ll try to conquer it. Make him
handsome and you’re a fascist, make him ugly and
you’re saying nothing new. The conqueror suits up
and takes the field, his horse already painted in
beneath him. What do you do with a man like that?
While you are deciding, more men ride in. The hand
sings weapon. The mind says tool. The body swerves
in the service of the mind, which is evidence of
the mind but not actual proof. More conquerors.
They swarm the field and their painted flags unfurl.
Crown yourself with leaves and stake your claim
before something smears up the paint. I shed away
from darkness to see daylight, to see what would
happen. What happened? What does a man want?
Power. The men spread, the thought extends. I paint
them out, I paint them in again. A blur of forces.
Why take more than we need? Because we can.
Deep footprint, it leaves a hole. You’d break your
heart to make it bigger, so why not crack your skull
when the mind swells. A thought bigger than your
own head. Try it. Seriously. Cover more ground.
I though of myself as a city and I licked my lips.
I thought of myself as a nation and I wrung my hands,
I put a thing in your hand. Will you defend yourself?
From me, I mean. Let’s kill something. The mind
moves forward, the paint layers up: glop, glop, and
shellac. I shovel the color into our faces, I shovel our
faces into our faces. They look like me. I move them
around. I prefer to blame others, it’s easier. King me.
Landscape with Fruit Rot and Millipede
I cut off my head and threw it in the sky. It turned
into birds. I called it thinking. The view from above—
untethered scrutiny. It helps to have an anchor
but your head is going somewhere anyway. It’s a matter
of willpower. O little birds, you flap around and
make a mess of the milk-blue sky—all these ghosts
come streaming down and sometimes I wish I had
something else. A redemptive imagination, for
example. The life of the mind is a disappointment,
but remember what stands for what. We deduce
backward into first causes—stone in the pond of things,
splash splash—or we throw ourselves into the future.
We all move forward anyway. Ripples in all directions.
What is a ghost? Something dead that seems to be
alive. Something dead that doesn’t know it’s dead.
A painting, for instance. An abstraction. Cut off your
head, Kid. For all the good it’ll do ya. I glued my head back
on. All thoughts finish themselves eventually. I wish
it was true. Paint all the men you want but sooner or
later they go to ground and rot. The mind fights the
body and the body fights the land. It wants our bodies,
the landscape does, and everyone runs the risk of
being swallowed up. Can we love nature for what it
really is: predatory? We do not walk through a passive
landscape. The paint dries eventually. The bodies
decompose eventually. We collide with place, which
is another name for God, and limp away with a
permanent injury. Ask for a blessing? You can try,
but we will not remain unscathed. Flex your will
or abandon your will and let the world have its way
with you, or disappear and save everyone the bother
of a dark suit. Why live a life? Well, why are you
asking? What are you trying to decide? I put on my
best shirt because the painting looked so bad. Color
bleeds, so make it work for you. Gravity pulls, so
make it work for you. Make it work for you. Rubbing
your feet at night or clutching your stomach in the
morning, and how much of yourself you leave
on the canvas. It was illegible—no single line of sight,
too many angles of approach, smoke in the distance—
it made no sense. When you have nothing to say,
set something on fire. A blurry landscape is useless.