2014 Contest: An Interview with Poetry Judge Richard Siken
Richard Siken’s poetry collection Crush won the 2004 Yale Series of Younger Poets prize, a Lambda Literary Award, the Thom Gunn Award, and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. His poems have appeared in The Iowa Review, Conjunctions, Indiana Review and Forklift, Ohio, as well as in the anthologies The Best American Poetry 2000 and Legitimate Dangers. He is a recipient of a Pushcart Prize, two Arizona Commission on the Arts grants, a Lannan Foundation residency, and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. His second book, War of the Foxes, is forthcoming from Copper Canyon Press in 2015.
Interview by BETHANY STARTIN
Black Warrior Review: Your upcoming publication War of the Foxes, slated for release in early 2015, is your first book-length work since 2005’s Crush. (We at BWR are incredibly excited about this.) What have been the most prominent changes in your writing since Crush?
Richard Siken: The poems in Crush were intense and interpersonal. I’m older now and I can’t pretend that I’m still in such immediate crisis. I think my voice is the same, but my concerns are larger. Rather than saying Why won’t you love me back? I’m saying War and death, leave my friends alone. The new poems are less desperate but more sad.
There are dozens of craft choices a well. For instance, in Crush I used the second person extensively, in an attempt to make the reader complicit in the situations of the poems. I didn’t want to repeat that strategy, so I was left with first- and third-person: I and He. The prose poems in the new book have characters doing actions, they have multiple speakers, so I used third-person there. The lineated poems are in the first-person, which was uncomfortable for me at first, since there was no longer a “you” to hide behind.
BWR: What I notice most prominently in your work are its obsessions, both topically and linguistically, a turning over and over of lament and identity. (The experience of reading this feels a bit like the perverse joy of picking at a scab — in the best way.) How does your writing process contribute to this obsessiveness?
RS: “Turning over and over” is exactly right. It’s a method of investigating, of returning to the situation — or even the noun — to triangulate the location of the unsayable, or to change the lighting of the room, or the angle of approach, to see the same thing but with different shadows. I think my personal sadness sloshed lament across every poem — so that was to be expected — but the repetitions and variations of identity we very considered attempts to understand and represent.
As for writing process, I just write. I should have, by now, come up with an interesting cover story, but I just write with whatever’s around, whenever I feel like it. I handwrite in notebooks, or on the back of bills, or I type on a computer, or I type notes in my phone.
BWR: What’s your favorite recent book of poetry — say, from the last year or so? And what is your favorite line or poem or word from it?
RS: Eidolon, by Ken White. Amazing book. I can’t quote a line — it would be like trying to quote a line from James Joyce or Gertrude Stein — but they waver a pure music and the spaces between the lines are also as highly charged. It leaps and sings, swerves past expectation, unsettles with a deep strange joy.
BWR: I remember my first experience of loving poetry very clearly: it was springtime and I was browsing the shelves of my school library when I found Josephine Balmer’s translations of Sappho, and couldn’t stop reading them for months afterwards. What’s your own first memory of discovering and loving a poet or poem?
RS: Unfortunately, none of my first memories are good. My half-brother tried to read “Macavity, the Mystery Cat” by T.S. Eliot to me after we got back from the Red Lobster where my parents told me they were getting a divorce. I think I kicked him. I know I tried to kick him, but I was crying really hard so I don’t know if my foot hit him or the bookcase.
BWR: Several of your poems, but in particular ‘Litany in Which Certain Things Are Crossed Out’, deal with notions of rewriting stories, of taking what’s established and turning it around on itself. What story (fairytale or otherwise) would you choose to be trapped inside? And how would you alter it?
RS: Ha! Funny you should ask. War of the Foxes is anchored by several prose poem fables. Several years ago my father’s health began to rapidly and then his wife died. We had been estranged for over 25 years, even though we live in the same town. I was faced with a problem: did I want the opportunity to punish him or did I want the opportunity to keep striving to be the man I want to be. I ended up moving in with him and giving him daily care. Was he my enemy? No. What was he? My opponent. We disagreed, we argued, we held our ground stubbornly. And so, a crystallizing moment:
You cannot have an opponent if you keep saying yes.
And yes, even years later and I was still really really deeply angry. He was an awful person and he taught me how to be awful person. But everyone has problematic relations with their parents. I couldn’t produce, or even imagine a first-person lyric “I” that would able to sing this or talk about it in any interesting way. So I turned to the strategies of fable:
The hunter sinks his arrows into the trees and then paints the targets around them. The trees imagine they are deer. The deer imagine they are safe. The arrows: they have no imagination.
All night the wind blows through the trees. It makes a sound.
The hunter’s son watches the hunter. The hunter paints more rings on his glasses. Everything is a target, says the hunter. No matter where you look. The hunter’s son says nothing, and closes his eyes.
BWR: Do you have a particular place you go to write? Can you describe your absolute ideal writing location?
RS: I do what I can wherever I am, but given a choice: I did like the Waffle House off of I-10 in Orange, Texas, near the Louisiana border, Friday night, late September, in the far booth, after the local High School football team’s winning home game.
BWR: Though I’ve loved your poetry for a long time, I only recently realized that you work with art in other forms too: specifically, painting and photography. Do you find the mental process of, say, painting to be substantially different from writing? How does engaging with other art forms complement your poetry, and vice versa?
RS: For months after I finished Crush, I felt like I had nothing left to say. Or even a way of saying it. I had talked myself out completely. I began painting again, not vey well, but since my paintings were never very good, and there was no hope of making them good, I was liberated from the pressure of an audience. I became silent. I squeezed the tubes and pushed the colors around. I did have more to say, I just couldn’t — at the time — say it with words. This was a crystallizing moment, and led to the line: The hand is a voice that can sing what the voice will not, and the hand wants to do something useful.
BWR: When I told one of my co-workers that you’d be judging for us, he demanded that I ask you if he could touch your scalp. I’m not going to ask you that, but I am going to ask which poet’s scalp you’d most like to touch.
RS: I would like to touch Berryman’s shoulder, or Rimbaud’s forehead.
BWR: I just finished creating a mix CD for a reading I’m giving in a couple of days, which turned out to be much tougher than I expected. (Narrowing down Taylor Swift songs is no easy task.) If you were to create a mix CD of songs to go with your work, what songs/artists would have to be on there?
RS: Anything by Philip Glass or Michael Nyman. Anything they have done or might do.
BWR: And finally, for the benefit of our poetry contestants, could you give us an idea of what you’re hoping to see in their submissions?
RS: I want to be overthrown or undone, stunned by something I’d never heard before or I’d ever thought of. It could be music freed of meaning, or clunky meaning, or feeling with or without image. Or honesty or lies or etcetera. I want it to spin against the way it drives. I want friction and tension. The poet Jack Gilbert said Poetry can move the fulcrum of the mind just enough so that the world becomes electrified and bewildering. That’s what I want. Just get me there.