In conversation with poet Richard Siken, be prepared to bleed a little.
In 2005, I happened upon a copy of Richard Siken’s Crush while browsing at Saint Mark’s Bookshop in the East Village. Published that year as part of the Yale Series of Younger Poets, the venerable Louise Glück had written the foreword. Her first sentence: “This is a book about panic.” Second: “The word is never mentioned.” My knees buckled. I sat down on the floor and read the sixty-two-page work from cover to cover; several hours later, sick to my stomach, I brought it home with me. Crush lived with me for years; during this time I lost copies left and right to friends and colleagues who borrowed mine without realizing how difficult it would become to part with it once immersed in the undertow of Siken’s text. In my final year of school, knee-deep in my own studies of poetry and art, I decided to write Siken: “It’s cliché as fuck to write a note like this . . . ” I began. His reply: “It is cliché as fuck.” Thus began a war of words. Six years later, Siken’s bite still draws blood, and it feels good.
Legacy Russell So, Richard, I’m just going to put it out there—while your work can be found on a myriad of blogs, online journals, and a variety of publications, and while selections from Crush have been read on YouTube by aspiring poets, tattooed on people’s bodies, and passed around a far-reaching literary community as a publication that has been rumored to change people’s lives, you’ve been relatively private about your identity as a writer. What gives?
Richard Siken You know, I’ve dodged this question (or answered it dishonestly) so many times now, but I’ll go ahead and attempt an explanation. You get the page, I get the rest. That’s the answer but really, you want the reasons behind the answer. I got an email from a high school student a while ago. She had selected one of my poems and was going to do a presentation for a class. Her teacher told her she should contact me, so she could understand the poem. I wrote back saying, basically, that if she needed my explanations and my biography to help her understand it—to feel it—then the poem was a failure and I had wasted my life. She wrote back, of course. She said I was rude and that now she was going to get a B.
LR (laughter) I wonder what she’ll do when her teacher asks her to dissect Ginsberg. Maybe she’ll have a séance. To feel a poem from Crush . . . for me, I’d imagine the only way to really describe it to someone else would be to remove one’s rings and pummel them in the face until they swallow a tooth. That would be pretty rude, I suppose, but at least she’d be present in that moment.
RS It gets worse. I was a waiter in a 24-hour restaurant when the first few poems of mine started showing up in magazines. After the bars closed, people would stream in, drunk. Some of them I sort of knew. “Hey, it’s that guy! Why don’t you recite a poem for us while you get our cheeseburgers!” At the bank once, when the teller at the window recognized my name: “I really love the part where your boyfriend dies and you’re really sad.” I want the freedom to keep some of my damages to myself so I can get through the day without being reminded of them. I want to make something that works even if—especially if—I’m not there. I like not being there. I want the freedom to wander off, or fall asleep. The work should work, or not work, without me. I’m the writer, not the story.
LR In “Litany in Which Certain Things Are Crossed Out”, you declare exactly that: “Who am I? I’m just a writer. I write things down.” It reminds me of O’Hara’s Why I Am Not a Painter (“I am not a painter, I am a poet,” 1971) . . . the idea that, in some way, your role as writer is to act as a stenographer, an observer.
RS Stenography. Cartography. Mark- and map-making. It’s more than observing—it comes after observing—it’s evidence once it’s written down or painted, a document. Observing’s the first step, it is for all art—and all science, too, I suppose—but then you have to render it into math or paint or words. I love that O’Hara poem. Frank writes twelve poems about oranges, inspired by oranges—“of how terrible orange is / and life”—without mentioning oranges, while his friend Mike paints a painting with the word sardines in it, that then gets painted out. O’Hara seems like a chatty, transparent speaker but he’s being sly here. He’s casually mentioning that he’s a craftsman and a liar. He’s giving a nod to artifice. He’s letting you know that often his first impulses, and even some of his truths, are being withheld.
LR Dickinson said: “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant— / . . . The Truth must dazzle gradually / Or every man be blind—” . . .
LR As a poet, how do you activate truth in your work?
RS Allegory, mostly. And metaphor. And juxtaposition. Example, comparison, relation. I’m less interested in what things are, more interested in where they are and what to do about them. Recently I’ve been dropping the “is” out of my metaphors and relying on the reader to make the associative leaps—for instance, saying “and the moon, terrible” instead of “and the moon is terrible.” Verbs of being are hard to make exciting. They diminish multiplicity. They’re argumentative. They provide the benefit of strong rhetorical declaration—the body is this or that —but run the risk of stalling out, or even stagnating a poem. Verbs of action are propulsive, which is often more useful than pointing at a thing and defining it. There’s truth in definition—a necessary truth, I’ll agree—but there are other aspects of nouns worth addressing.
LR Let’s unpack that a little. What do you mean?
RS There’s a lot to be said for looking at a thing and not resorting to name calling. I have an aversion to name calling. Naming restricts. Once restricted, it’s easy to be judged and punished. Identity is more subtle, more liquid, I hope. In “Saying Your Names,” the lover is continually redefined, line by line, by shifting strategies of definition so that by the end of the poem he has been compared to, has been identified with the whole world. In “You Are Jeff,” everyone in the world—including the speaker and the reader—is named Jeff. With only one identity, each part of the world must now define itself in relation to its other parts, rather than as a stand-alone thing, independent of context.
LR Naming restricts, naming limits, naming is an alchemy that makes that which is wild, suddenly somehow civil. Is naming a political act?
LR Do you consider yourself a political poet?
RS No. I’m interested in nouns and verbs, not agendas. I wish my scope was larger. There are things worth arguing about and fighting for. But I’m not a soldier—not that kind of soldier—I’m a spy.
LR A tension between man and nature seems to act as an undercurrent through many of your poems. In what way does the natural world call out to the characters you flesh out? What is the intent behind this juxtaposition of man form and wilderness?
RS It’s a basic inside/outside problem. I don’t know where I end and the world begins. My best guess? Skin. It’s the only actual boundary between the body and the world, between a body and any other body. Crush, at its core, is about rupture. The desire to touch, the gesture of touching, becomes dangerous, damaging, after the hand, withheld for so long, finally makes an attempt at contact. Simultaneously, and without pity, the natural world and its physical laws restrict the human form and its capacities. All of us are trapped in our skins and drowning in gravity. Physics is unforgiving. Nature is predatory. We do not walk through a passive landscape.
LR In Crush, there are also tensions between the indoors and outdoors, the civilized and the somewhat chaotic elements of what strikes me as the wild, the presence of human law and natural law. Were these formal concerns—or was something else going on?
RS I’d like to think that everything in the book was considered. In revision, I’m sure I shaped towards clarity. I don’t know if I had a consistent or comprehensive theory, I just know that these tensions were deeply felt. Sometimes, when we write from our experience, we end up representing aspects of the world we don’t realize we’re immersed in.
LR You are incredibly painterly in your writing. In “You Are Jeff”, you write:
There are two twins on motorbikes but one is farther up the road, beyond the hairpin turn, or just before it, depending on which Jeff you are. It could have been so beautiful—you scout out the road ahead and I will watch your back, how it was and how it will be, memory and fantasy—but each Jeff wants to be the other one. My name is Jeff and I’m tired of looking at the back of your head. My name is Jeff and I’m tired of seeing my hand me down clothes. Look, Jeff, I’m telling you, for the last time, I mean it, etcetera. They are the same and they are not the same. They are the same and they hate each other for it.
You build up images as a painter would—they are layered, complex, rich. What is your relationship to other forms of art? Do you see a connection between the process of writing and the process of producing an artwork that might, say, hang on a wall?
RS That’s kind, and kind of funny. I am a painter, also. I think in panels more often than I think in narrative. Series and sequence, sideways development, the repetition of image or scene, the use of a limited palette—I aspire to be painterly. There’s also the same freedom to make it, leave it, and wander off. Whether it’s on a bedside table or on a wall, it’s the same impulse: I left this for you. I happened to be in this room before you. Here’s what I did in this room—what I felt and thought and rendered. Now you are in this room and I have moved on to a different room. “You Are Jeff” is 24 panels from a really difficult room.
LR I’ll say. What room are you in now?
RS When I wrote Crush, I felt like I was yelling into the void. I think all developing writers feel this way. But then there was suddenly an attentive and present audience reading my work and taking me seriously. I got spooked. Regardless of what parts of Crush are true, and to what extent, I had hoped that there would be a greater distinction between the speaker in the poems and the author of the poems. In fiction, we assume there’s a distinction between the narrator and the author. In poetry, we don’t always, though we should. So I got spooked and I shut up. I had the sense that I was expected to produce Crush 2—and there is no Crush 2, couldn’t possibly be a Crush 2 even if I was interested in attempting it—so I started to feel boxed in. But I was still feeling things and thinking things and my hands wanted something to do. So I got out my paints and squeezed the tubes, started pushing the color around without over-thinking it. I shut my mouth and opened my hand. After a while, I found myself thinking things, saying things, related to the paintings. My new poems started there.
LR You kept your hands talking, then. In “The Problem,” you write: “because the hand is a voice that can sing what the voice will not and the hand wants to do something useful.”
RS Yeah, that was a crystallizing moment. In Crush, the speaker didn’t know what to do with his hands. In my new poems, the speakers do. Or at least think they do.
LR Were there other crystallizing moments?
RS In “War of the Foxes,” I say, “You cannot have an opponent if you keep saying yes.” That blew the doors off a whole new room.
LR Your rooms bring to mind so many questions about space and territory and geography. Crush dealt so much with looking at the body as a landscape. In “The Dislocated Room,” you write: “I’ve been in your body, baby, and it was paradise. / I’ve been in your body and it was a carnival ride.” Do your new poems continue this investigation?
RS I think so, but the investigation has moved to the landscape itself. Crush was cinematic, concerned with revisions and do-overs, with what was on-stage and what was off-stage. Crush was concerned with now and then. Now I’m investigating here and there. Sounds silly and simple, but there you are. There are similar concerns—what’s in the frame and what’s not, how the paint as a medium (rather than the physical world) restricts the human form—but I hope the scope is larger. If Crush is a room—a theater—the new work attempts to build a house. Maybe someday I’ll build a town.
LR Building is a good word to draw on here; it suggests a work in process and therefore infinite, if not forever then at least for a little while. In “War of the Foxes”, you use the syntactic device of anaphora, repeating, “Let me tell you a story about war.” Anaphora is a Greek word, meaning literally, carrying back; often we find it in everything from poetry to the narrative rhetoric ranging from the speeches of Obama (“Yes, we can!”) to Byron. Though you “carry back” the idea of a story, it seems that no part of the work ever comes to a final halt. There are no endings, you’re constantly building those rooms, always one step away from that house, perhaps—but not quite. Readers identify with your characters and then—just as quickly—are torn away from them. Is it surprising to hear that your poems seem to leave the reader in a lurch?
RS I’m writing from inside the lurch. And my endings are hidden inside my middles. I guess they aren’t true endings if they’re landed in the middles, but still. I think I’m also dealing with the experience of aftermath. The poems end but then continue into codas that aren’t resolved. If a poem doesn’t click shut, then the reader is never let off the hook, the question is never fully answered, the characters remain restless, the narrative continues on beyond the page. Maybe that’s cheating, though. What qualities are essential for a satisfying end? Some poems end with a rhetorical statement—an attempt at summation—and others end on an image, or a narrative culmination. Gertrude Stein once wrote about periods, how she didn’t use them or didn’t know where to put them. I might have a similar blind spot.
Listen to Siken read his work, at From the Fishouse:
—Legacy Russell is BOMBlog’s Art Editor. She is an independent curator, artist, writer and cultural producer.